Rosemary Penwarden writes:

Sharon McGarry did not save the day. Mt William stands in line as the next mountaintop removal on the Stockton plateau. It’s the sequel to a very sad story of ignorance, intimidation and elephants; my experience opposing Solid Energy’s proposal for a new open cast coal mine on 243 hectares of Mt William on the Stockton plateau, just beyond the famous Happy Valley. It’s also a lesson to me as a first time submitter at a council RMA hearing; our legal system is wearing a blindfold.

The three independent commissioners, like three blind mice, including Sharon, who presumably still thinks carbon dioxide makes holes in the ozone layer (see The Mt William North Hearings: Ignorance, Intimidation and Elephants), have given Solid Energy the green light to take the top off Mt William (“top down” mining, they call it).

And, even though the local tangata whenua consider Mt William to be of cultural significance, mountains being their gateway to the atua (gods), Dr Ruth Bartlett, Solid Energy’s Manager of Consents and Planning, has an excellent working relationship with them so it’s ok to take their mountain away. Afterwards Solid Energy will erect a serpentine rock pou, with carved inscription, to commemorate what they’ve lost. No worries. (1)

Oh, and landscape architect Frank Boffa says that, from a distance, you will sort of see what it used to be like – a hump here, a hollow there – you know, like the ridgeline that was built up over millennia? (2) Albeit at a lower altitude you understand. Jolly good of them, don’t you think? Ruth said we don’t want anything too jagged left at Mt William anyway because the surrounding area will be low – that’s because anything greater than a sixteen degree angle up on the plateau, post mining, will be washed away by the six metre per annum rainfall – and it’s better to be in keeping with the (new) existing surroundings. (3) Anyway, they need the coal from underneath the jagged bit too.

Of course, those unique sandstone pavements, 34.4 hectares’ worth, will have to go. But oh well, there are offsets, mitigations and compensations and it all comes out in the wash to a Target Final Landform Plan, and what with some predator control for a few years in a completely different area, hey presto! A nice net biodiversity gain all round! I don’t know; the things you can do with ‘science’ these days.

Anyway, not many people go there, which in Frank’s eyes could be an argument to diminish the area’s importance. (4)

Then there’s the compelling economic argument for blasting the top off Mt William: 17 jobs and two further years of mining.

Used to be impossible to move mountains.

We mustn’t forget the wider economic benefits to the region; the two-speed economy for instance, part of the ‘boom’ portion in a mining town’s inevitable boom-and-bust cycle. House prices are rocketing in Westport. Great for some, very bad for those who don’t earn miners’ salaries to cover rent or mortgage payments.

Now, how did those commissioners make their difficult decision? On the one hand: irreversible destruction of 243 hectares of a near pristine environment, habitat for up to 59 great spotted kiwi (Apteryx haastii – threatened), land snails (Powelliphanta patrickensis – threatened) – which are site specific, so that each small region has its own snail subspecies – West Coast green geckos (Naultinus tuberculatus – declining), South Island kaka (nationally endangered), Western weka (at risk – declining), South Island fernbird (at risk – declining), NZ pipit (at risk – declining), South Island rifleman (at risk – declining), the low-growing woody subshrub Dracophyllum densum (declining), the endemic coal-measures tussock Chionochloa juncea (declining), and Parkinson’s rātā (Metrosideros parkinsonii) – mustn’t forget the eventual discharge of around 13 million tonnes of climate warming carbon dioxide into the world’s atmosphere. On the other hand: two more years of mining and 17 jobs for some lucky 12-hours-a-day, 7-day-on, 7-off drivers. Tough choice!

Mining Mt William may not be the final blow to the declining and endangered species that live there, and those 13 million tonnes of CO2 may or may not initiate runaway climate change, but in the words of expert chemist Bob Cunningham, who kindly provided me with information about ocean acidification which the commissioners refused to let me read out at the hearing: “…it is from small beginnings that momentous occasions result.” The way mice nibble away at your cheese.

It must be easier to make such choices whilst blindfolded. During the hearing, Climate Change, our gorgeous dreadlocked elephant, sat politely in the front row of the Westport Bridge Club while submitters spoke on his behalf. Sharon would not have recognised him anyway, but the other two commissioners, even had they noticed his pink floppy ears and sad round eyes, were not allowed to acknowledge him, not even to cast a cursory glance his way.

Three Elephants

That’s because he has been banished by the Environment Court. Climate Change, the most important environmental issue facing the world today, banished by our own Environment Court and called irrelevant by the coal miners’ legal representative, Chapman Tripp.

The lawyers told local governments not to worry their heads over Climate Change. Leave it to them, they say, to that legal piece of national weasel wizardry, loved by all big fossil fuel emitters: the Emissions Trading Scheme. The ETS works wonders for Solid Energy – we, the taxpayers, subsidise 90% of their NZ emissions and anything exported doesn’t count. They get to pollute our atmosphere for next to nothing!

There it is; a sad story of three blind mice, one elephant, and a mountain.


(1) See Ruth Bartlett – Consultation
(2) See – 13: Landscape
(3) See Ruth Bartlett – Consultation
(4) See Frank Boffa – Landscape