Regional | Mining

Possible Tasman gold mine only in ‘exploration phase’

Among concerns are the impact of mining activity on Te Waikoropupū Springs. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The article first appeared on RNZ.

A mining company hoping to extract billions of dollars worth of gold in the Upper Tākaka Valley, says it will be a few years before it knows if the operation is economically viable and can go ahead.

Meanwhile, Golden Bay residents have raised concerns that the proposed gold mine could have dire consequences for the region’s water quality, including the famed Te Waikoropupū Springs, if it is allowed under the Government’s new Fast-track Approvals Bill.

Golden Bay Community Board deputy chair Grant Knowles spoke to Siren Gold technical director Paul Angus on his Fresh FM show last week.

Angus said Siren Gold was invited by the government to submit an application for the Sam’s Creek mine under the Fast Track Approvals bill and did so in April.

He said the “one-stop shop” approach was appealing, as it would consolidate dealings with the landowner (Department of Conservation) consent issuer (Tasman District Council) and the mining permit issuer (New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals).

Angus told Fresh FM the company had nothing to hide and it was still in the exploration phase so hadn’t finalised any details of a potential mining operation.

Its current estimate was that more than 800,000 ounces of gold could be mined at Sams Creek, from a 30-square kilometre block bordering the Kahurangi National Park. Angus said it would require the removal of 10 million tonnes of rock, at a rate of between 1 and 1.5 million tonnes per annum, with a yield of about 2.8 grams of gold per tonne.

He said the company was considering an underground mine, with a life of at least 10 years. It would employ a few hundred people and produce a concentrate that would be shipped offshore for smelting, possibly from Westport or Tarakohe.

Knowles said Sams Creek fed into the Arthur Marble Aquifer and Te Waikoropupū Springs, home to some of the clearest water in the world which is protected by a water conservation order. He said many in the community were worried about the impact of a mining operation on the region’s water quality.

Angus said the company was “fully aware” of the potential impact on the groundwater quality and there was no reason for concern at this stage.

“We are not going to do anything that is going to affect Pupū Springs, we will mine to the highest quality, we will build the tailings dam to the highest quality we can and we will have to demonstrate through the resource consent process that we can do that, or else we won’t get consent.”

Angus said there was arsenic in the rock with the gold deposits, but it would be extracted, processed and removed from the site and not be allowed to leach into the environment.

“Obviously we have got to do a lot of engineering work to prove that we can mine and process without contaminating the aquifers...and if we can’t prove that, then we won’t get consent.”

Angus said Siren Gold’s exploration permit was due to expire next year, and it could not be extended, so it would be applying for a mining permit in September, or else it would lose tenure of the ground.

He said the company would keep the Golden Bay community informed once it had more detail about the proposed mining operation.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do before we get anywhere close to mining and as we get closer and have more information, we will keep the community involved.”

Kevin Moran started the Greenpeace campaign Don’t fast track Te Waikoropupū! to unite those who were seeking to have the Fast-track Approvals Bill amended so any activities that contradicted water conservation orders were excluded from the legislation

The petition has gained more than 13,000 signatures since it was launched.

Moran, the co-ordinator for Save our Springs, said the water conservation order sought by Ngāti Tama ki te Waipounamu Trust and Andrew Yuill in 2013 for Te Puna Waiora o Te Waikoropupū Springs and the Wharepapa Arthur Marble Aquifer Water was implemented last September after 10 years of hard work.

The order recognised and protected the waterbody’s outstanding values by imposing restrictions or prohibitions on activities that would affect these values.

Moran said if the bill were to pass into law, the government would be able to bypass the protections the water conservation order gives Te Waikoropupū Springs, and do the same for the 15 other orders in existence.

Tasman District Council Golden Bay ward councillor Chris Hill said the community had a range of concerns about the impact of a potential mining operation on the environment.

“To think that as it stands, the fast track approval bill would trump water conservation orders in New Zealand, a lot of people, including me think that is just simply wrong.”

She said exploration permits had been held for Sams Creek for a number of years and it was still not known if the area would be mined, or how it would be mined.

There were concerns over how the material would be removed and the arsenic that would result from the mining process.

“It would just be a disaster if it wasn’t managed and held in a way that was just 100 per cent foolproof, so there’s a lot to find out about how it would be mined, but just that it could be, is pretty alarming for people I think.”

In April, RMA Reform Minister Chris Bishop confirmed that Siren Gold was one of the 168 organisations who received a “courtesy letter” about the fast-track application process, directing potential applicants to the Ministry for the Environment’s online application form.

“Having been sent this letter in no way guarantees that an applicant will choose to submit a project into the new process. If they did choose to submit a project, having received the form letter from me does not mean they would receive any preferential treatment.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) said the independent Projects Advisory Group was still reviewing applications and would make recommendations in a report to joint ministers in August, on the projects for inclusion in the Fast-track Approvals Bill.

It could not comment on whether the bill, in its current form, would override water conservation orders as it was before the Environment Select Committee of which MfE was a lead advisor.