Sharon McGarry thinks carbon dioxide makes holes in the ozone layer.

No, not a year nine science student but a commissioner; one of three in Westport recently entrusted with the task of unravelling the scientific and economic data pertinent to the next mountaintop removal on the Stockton Plateau –Mt William North.

The realisation that Ms McGarry did not have even a basic grasp of the science behind climate change was a shock, but the whole experience of submitting at this council hearing was a series of curious events.

I was at the Westport Bridge Club to speak to my submission opposing Solid Energy’s proposal to mine 5.4 million tonnes of new coal at Mt William. If mined, this coal will send approximately 13 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, widen even more the gap between reality and our international emissions obligations, further shred our clean green image, and destroy more endangered flora and fauna on the plateau.

Less than two weeks before the hearing submitters received a letter telling us that, due to the recent Environment Court declaration, the commissioners were “not able to have regard to any evidence or submissions concerning the effects on climate change of discharges into air arising from the subsequent burning of coal.”

Yes, that’s right, our supreme environmental statute, the RMA, is legally unable to consider the greatest environmental threat facing humanity; climate change. Even though this ruling is under appeal the commissioners chose not to delay the Mt William hearing.

Some of us still spoke about climate change, understanding it would be ignored. We also talked about ocean acidification, another effect of CO2 emissions not ruled out in the commissioner’s letter. With a wave of her arm Ms McGarry dismissed such talk: “We all know CO2 makes holes in the ozone”. After a short silence of disbelief it became clear that ocean acidification was also going to be banned, along with climate change. Curious how the rules appeared to change as the day progressed.

Curious too, was the presence of 20 or so Solid Energy workers in the back of the room dressed in orange safety gear and boots. They looked a little out of place accepting tea and bikkies from the lovely Bridge Club lady.

Then again, those of us opposing the proposal had brought our own curious sight – an elephant, sitting in the front row taking notes, dreads tied neatly back. At lunchtime he stood outside the entrance with a placard “Say NO to New Coal Extraction” while an orange-coated ‘worker’ shovelled coal under a carpet and a large banner explained to passers by and to the orange-garbed Solid Energy workers: “Climate Change is the Elephant in the Room”.

Standing nearby taking photographs was yet another curious sight – a dark suited character straight out of an American crime show. It turned out he worked for ProVision, also called Thompson and Clark Investigations Ltd, the agency caught out in 2007 for planting spies in the ranks of the Happy Valley protesters – paid for by Solid Energy: see

Opposers to Solid Energy’s application had been allocated the whole day to speak. We represented individuals and groups, locals and ‘outsiders’, whitebaiters, grandmothers, doctors and environmentalists.

I did not get my turn until the following morning. By then the workers in their safety gear had gone, replaced by Solid Energy’s demurely attired ecologist. No shady character outside. It seemed the commissioners needed only hear one more ‘pesky’ environmentalist, then get back to business. I had come 700 km to speak on behalf of myself and two other submitters, but the commissioners wanted to dismiss my second and third submissions without even hearing them. After I finished, as I left the room I could see it being cosily re-arranged so the Commissioners and their “friends” could finish the hearing in a more informal setting.

Then it was the local councils’ turn. I don’t hold out much hope for the councils; they don’t seem to take climate change that seriously. New developments are permitted at sea level all along the Coast. The Regional Council’s own fancy new building at Greymouth appears to rely on a few sand dunes to combat sea level rise.

The next day I visited Mordor (Stockton) itself, stood on black sludge 30 metres below where Mt Augustus should have been – mountaintop removal, Kiwi style. I looked over to Happy Valley, now renamed the Cypress Extension in an attempt to erase its colourful history of protest. The contrast between that untouched valley, the mountain beyond, and the hell below my feet was distressing. The land reclamation is a joke. Up there, anything at an angle greater than 16 degrees gets washed away. You can’t put a mountain back.

Beyond Happy Valley sat Mt William. Mt William, the next mountain top removal project. Or not? Will Sharon McGarry save the day?

– Rosemary Penwarden.

Check out images of the protest at the hearing – including the elephant!