Today began the second week of hearings on Glencoal’s (a wholly owned coal mining subsidiary of Fonterra’s who sell only to their parent company) application for consents to construct an open cast coal mine on 30 ha of farmland beside SH2 at Mangatawhiri. The hearing is before a panel of three commissioners, on behalf of the regional and district councils, chaired by David Hill.

Last week was totally given over to evidence from Fonterra (Glencoal). Today the panel will hear from local residents who support the mine. I’m told they are the ones closest to it and potentially most affected by the dust, noise, etc it will create. But they are supporting Fonterra, who told one of the submitters that they had “reached an arrangement”. How much, of course, will be confidential.

Then the panel will hear from Catherine Delahunty, representing the Green Party, and from local residents opposed to the mine.

Throughout the hearing an elephant has sat quietly in the front row, silent and well-behaved, with a sign around his neck “Climate change is the elephant in the room”. No-one, to my knowledge has referred to his presence, just as no-one is allowed to refer to climate change, the chief reason for opposing new coal mines, because previous courts have ruled that that is what the law means.

But climate change is not the only elephant in the room and needs a mate.

Tomorrow CANA is due to appear at 9am. Our submission focussed only on the availability of a solution which would avoid all the adverse effects of the mine, while creating the same benefits, including more jobs. We have an excellent expert witness, John Gifford, who has spent his career working on the use of wood as fuel. Among other senior positions he has worked for Forest Products and Scion over the years. He calculates that there is enough waste wood from forestry operations, most of which is currently left to rot, to replace the 120,000 tonnes of coal a year the mine would extract. All of it is within 110 km of the dairy factories and much of it is within 30 km.

CANA argues that it is time to start a transition to wood fuels in place of coal, and that could start by co-firing wood and coal in the current boilers. Using just wood would require capital investment in different handling and combustion facilities, but a new mine requires capital investment too. What we want is a commitment from Fonterra to start this transition.

However the chair’s ruling on the legal submission I made on Friday, says that this hearing is just about the mine and its effects. The use of the coal, and alternatives to it are not on the table. But Fonterra itself presented evidence from two witnesses on why using wood was not an option for them. This has opened the door, according to the chair, for us to rebut that evidence. But they expect our evidence to be tabled and are “unlikely to require” that our witness appear.

It seems one of the arguments, made by Fonterra (or was it Glencoal?) is that they are two separate companies. Glencoal has made the application and they are not responsible for what Fonterra does with the coal when it is sold to them – in fact it could, the chair speculated, even be sold to someone else!

Ah – but the economic benefit claimed for the project is all in terms of feeding Fonterra’s boilers and allowing our largest industry to continue on its merry course. Seems to me they can’t have it both ways.

Our second elephant would have a sign around his nick, “Wood waste is the second elephant in the room”.

At this stage we don’t know whether “unlikely to require” means “will not permit” our witness to appeal. So we are going ahead as planned. A number of journalists are interested in wood waste as an alternative to the mine so the work will never be wasted.

I’ll let you know after tomorrow what happens.

– Jeanette Fitzsimons