Solid Energy bet big on coal. They bet wrong. And the latest victims of Solid Energy’s arrogance and mismanagement are the giant native snails the company had promised to protect.
Coal Action Network Aotearoa condemns the news that Solid Energy has given up on its commitment to protect the native snails, some of which had been stored in fridges after the state coal mining company destroyed their habitat.
The cost of keeping Powelliphanta augusta – sacrificed for coal – from extinction has now fallen on the cash-strapped Department of Conservation. These snails are regarded as living fossils due to their ancient lineage, and have developed a set of peculiar characteristics that is totally unique in the world. They represent a small but significant part of our natural heritage that deserves to be saved. They’re carnivorous, hermaphroditic, and critically endangered. The snails will now be left to their own devices on land that is increasingly encroached by mining.
The Save Happy Valley Campaign made the Powelliphanta snails a symbol of protecting biodiversity in New Zealand. In 2003 Solid Energy was forced to admit that members of the public had found what appeared to be a new species living on Mt. Augustus on the West Coast of the South Island.
Solid Energy denied any legal responsibility for these snails, offering to relocate only 50, because the Stockton open cast mine operates under an old coal mining licence that excludes it from many of the provisions of the RMA. Despite that outrageous exemption, Forest and Bird (and others) succeeded in forcing the company to at least apply for wildlife permits from the Department of Conservation.
After much deliberation, Solid Energy were allowed to behead and mine Mt Augustus, as long as they made minimal provision for the snails. The Labour Government and Minister of Conservation at the time, Chris Carter, approved this.
Solid Energy forcibly removed thousands of snails amid ongoing direct action protests by the Save Happy Valley Coalition. Some of these collected snails were placed a nearby site with different altitude, aspect, exposure, soil chemistry and diversity of vegetation. Around 1800 were refrigerated and, in 2011, 800 of these perished after the fridge they were living in froze them solid.
The habitat was destroyed long before it was known whether the species would survive in either of these places, even in the short term. It is not at all clear yet whether the populations that have been translocated to other spots are going to survive in the long term. These are no ordinary snails – they live for up to twenty years, and take eight years to start breeding.
The Department of Conservation took a gamble in accepting that Solid Energy would destroy the snails’ habitat, and wait and see if the snails would live in captivity. Now that the gamble has been made, ten years down the track, many doubts remain – out in the wild, the species is going to need ongoing monitoring, pest control, and it may be too soon to release the back-up, captive and refrigerated snails.
The company destroyed the habitat; the snails aren’t safe yet. Solid Energy shows every sign of collapsing within the next 12 months. Who is going to pay for the snails now?
The environmental damage is done, and the supposed profits will not extend to cleaning up the mess left behind. The New Zealand taxpayer now has to pay to clean up the mess that this company made. How much longer do New Zealanders have to keep paying for mining companies to destroy the environment? Can we expect more of the same from Solid Energy?
The Government has now had to step in and underwrite the $103 million environmental indemnity fund that Solid Energy promised to pay when it first started destroying Mt Augustus for the coal it cannot sell today. For water at Stockton coal mine, for the landscape at Happy Valley, for rehabilitation at all their sites? Is $103 million enough?
There is a lesson here in the Government’s acceptance of promises from a coal company that it can clean up the environment and protect endangered species from destruction, especially as the price of coal continues to remain at all time lows, and companies like Solid Energy become stranded assets. This case shows that promises from coal companies are worth less than nothing.
The snails are the kind of stranded asset that Aotearoa’s own stranded asset – Solid Energy – has left for the taxpayer to pay. This is not only happening in New Zealand: a recent report in the US showed the public there faces increasing liability for reclamation costs of more than $3.5 billion in damage to landscapes, wildlife and crucial water supplies.
Coal mining, along with causing climate change, kills biodiversity. Powelliphanta snails are the moa of the mollusc world, and for how much longer will their survival continue? New Zealanders want to keep what is precious and unique to this country. New coal mines should form no part of that.