Coal company Bathurst Resources is at it again, this time applying to expand its coal mine at Coalgate, in mid-Canterbury, adding another 18ha to its current mine, which supplies the Fonterra and Synlait dairy factories.
Bathurst, based in Wellington, but largely Singaporean-owned, is the main coal miner supplying New Zealand’s dairy industry, Aotearoa’s second-largest coal user. The industry, dominated by Fonterra, burns coal to dry milk powder for export. Last year the Overseas Investment Office granted Bathurst permission to buy more land in Canterbury for mining.
Bathurst’s current mine at Coalgate (Glentunnel, mid-Canterbury) produces 142,000 tonnes of coal a year, which once consumed adds 406,000 tonnes of CO2 a year into the atmosphere. The extension, two kilometres away, would extend the life of the mine to 2035 and produce another 30,000 tonnes of coal a year – adding another 87,000 tonnes of CO2 a year to the atmosphere.
In the leadup to Level 4 lockdown, Bathurst and Fonterra spent two days successfully lobbying the government to make thermal coal for dairy factories an essential use.
Coal Action Network Aotearoa has had a long history of opposing Bathurst’s coal mining activities. In this blog we set out what is going on in Canterbury, along with other historical background to the company, its precarious finances, and its political relationships.
Bathurst’s ongoing pollution of local rivers threatens endangered fish
Right alongside the Coalgate mine is Bush Gully creek, habitat to the critically endangered Canterbury mudfish, which is close to extinction. The creek runs through the land.
A large part of Bathurst’s application to Environment Canterbury (ECan) for this 18ha expansion of its current coal mine includes retrospective applications to make up for not meeting its consents for its current mining operations,as detailed in their resource consent applications, which are available via the ECan website.
Bathurst is applying for retrospective consent on a range of issues, including its original consent for water use, which it has consistently exceeded, and for damage to the Tara Wetlands which it has damaged extensively, and is applying to continue doing so. It has also breached consent on traffic movement, running more trucks up and down the road than it had consented – and wants to extend those movements.
Aside from these breaches, let’s look at Bathurst’s record so far at its current Coalgate mine:
- In 2017 Bathurst was ordered to pay a $10,500 fine from 14 infringement notices for failing to protect waterways from sediment runoff from the mine. ECan’s Waihora zone manager Michaela Rees, told Stuff the company’s failure to fully establish sediment controls such as fencing, staged ponds and planting, was a “very serious issue”. “This left the waterways or streams vulnerable as there was inadequate protection in place to manage the risk of sediment run-off during a large rainfall event, of which there have been several this year.”
- But Bathurst clearly hadn’t cleaned up – as, in early 2018 it was ordered to pay a further $9750 for 13 more infringements, also relating to sediment runoff from the mine, causing runoff to flow into local rivers. All 27 infringements between June and November 2017, left large areas of soil exposed to heavy rainfall that subsequently washed it into the rivers, including Bush Gully creek. The runoff ultimately ends up in the critically polluted Lake Waihora.
- One would think Bathurst would have learned its lesson. But in January 2020 Bathurst was again fined – this time for $18,000 – for breaching its consent and discharging sediment into the Bush Gully Stream, home to the endangered Canterbury Mudfish. While the discharge was not deliberate Judge B Dwyer said Bathurst’s offending involved a “systemic failure to comply” with the terms of its consent, and it took place in a “vulnerable environment which is a highly important habitat of a nationally threatened species”.
These breaches bring not only Bathurst’s environmental record into question, but also Environment Canterbury’s ability to properly monitor the company to stop it from polluting. After the first breach, Rees said “If the company fails to comply again in any way, we won’t hesitate to escalate our enforcement response if necessary – our waterways must be protected.”
And yet Bathurst went on to breach the consent on numerous occasions. Enforcement has not been escalated. This is not only a reflection on Bathurst, it is also a reflection on ECan’s ability to keep the miner under control.
ECan cannot take climate change into consideration
The elephant in the room with this application is the fact that under the current Resource Management Act (RMA), in weighing up whether to grant Bathurst consent for the new mine, ECan is prevented from taking the mine’s impact on the climate into account.
This is a fundamental problem with the RMA that has been addressed in the Parliamentary Select Committee’s report back of the RMA Amendment Bill, which is currently waiting for its second and third readings.
However, even those amendments will take some time to come into force, as the proposed legislation stipulates that a National Policy Statement on Climate has to be put into place first.
So ECan will have to ignore the fact that the mine will dig up coal that will be burned in dairy factories and spew forth a further 87,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.
How did Bathurst get here: a history
In 2016, after Bathurst had finally won consent to open the Escarpment Mine on the Denniston Plateau, the price of coal was so low that it wasn’t profitable to export the coal. Then Bathurst’s sole customer at that time, Holcim Cement, closed down.
Bathurst mothballed the mine, and turned its sights on domestic coal production to keep itself afloat. Armed with a contract to supply Fonterra, it ramped up its production in Southland and Canterbury, at Takitimu mine in Nightcaps and Coalgate mine near Glentunnel where it has twice extended its mining.
This amped-up production for dirty dairy allowed Bathurst to keep itself afloat financially. It then teamed up with Talley’s to form a new company, BT Mining, which bought up Solid Energy’s coal assets on the West Coast and some in the North Island, a deal finalised in 2017.
However, the Escarpment mine remains mothballed, as Bathurst doesn’t have the consent from DOC it needs to expand a road to get the coal off the plateau. It is trying to get this across the line as part of the post COVID-19 “shovel ready” projects.
Things got worse for Bathurst in April 2020 when it lost its appeal against paying L&M Mining the $60 million it owed the company for the Denniston/Escarpment mining permits.
Bathurst bought the Escarpment mine from L&M for US $35m with another $40m (NZ$60m), due when Bathurst had shipped 25,000 tonnes of coal and another $40m payment when one million tonnes of coal had been shipped. Bathurst’s argument to get out of this deal was that it hadn’t “shipped” any Denniston coal out of the country as it only went to Holcim Cement in Westport, so it didn’t owe L&M Mining the cash. But in April the Court of Appeal disagreed, and Bathurst’s shares plummeted.
Bathurst is now seeking leave to challenge the Court of Appeal decision to the Supreme Court.
Talley’s brings political donations into the mix
When Bathurst teamed up with Talley’s to form BT Mining – and bought up Solid Energy’s assets on the West Coast and in the North Island, it also took on board Talley’s political connections. Talley’s is a major funder of NZ First, donating $10,000 to Shane Jones for the 2017 election campaign, and, it turns out, giving the NZ First Foundation nearly $27,000 between 2017 and 2019.
In May 2020, Regional Development Minister Jones promised West Coast councils that DOC stewardship land would be open for business if New Zealand First has any say in it after the election.
“If we are blessed with the opportunity to create another government, NZ First will be pushing for extractive industries to occupy a very important position, post-Covid, because we have to create jobs and generate overseas income.”
It is clear that Jones is out to bat for his friends at BT Mining, and we hope that these climate killers won’t get any traction in the upcoming “shovel ready” decisions to be made by the Government.
As former Chief Executive of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres wrote in the Financial Times:
“The crux of the matter is that the pandemic-induced financial decisions made over the next 12 months will shape the global economy for the next decade, just when we must halve our emissions. The recovery packages will cost trillions of dollars. Governments are unlikely to have the resources to direct capital at such scale towards other urgent global needs for years. We cannot jump out of the frying pan of the pandemic and into the fire of exacerbated climate change. By that time we will have run out of fire hydrants.”