High on Denniston Plateau Seeking Balance Between Economy and EnvironmentBy Paul Murray
High on a mountaintop overlooking the Tasman Sea hard-hatted men in convoys of white utes patrol the plateau and make plans to uncover the riches beneath the rock, tussock and scrub.
Coal is the new gold on the West Coast of the South Island…and our coal is considered the world’s best…hot-burning coking coal is in hot demand in emerging economies like India and China and in energy-hungry industrialised nations like Japan.
World energy demand has risen significantly in the decades since Denniston was last disturbed by coal mining. This is metaphorically represented on the plateau by a remnant power-deliver system that is now dwarfed by electricity pylons ten times their size. Power consumption in New Zealand is also escalating and one solution is to exploit resources like coal to fuel the supply and satisfy the demand.
New Zealand’s economy also badly needs to earn foreign currency to balance our appetite for imported goods, our people need jobs and resource extraction and sale provides for them…after all, how are we going to pay for more imports if we don’t sell what we have in exchange for such goods?
Reports of Japan, China and India stockpiling the coal they buy from us to satisfy future energy needs is interesting. The Japanese apparently store coal in the sea where is can later be recovered to fuel their industry. This begs the question, why not leave the coal where it is and sell it to overseas markets when they really need it…and are prepared to pay top dollar for it? The answer, I suspect, is that we are currently living beyond our means and our quantity of life exceeds our ability to sustainably meet our avarice, which means we have to generate more $pondoolie to pay for a perceived increase in living standard…plasma TVs, i-Phones, cars, boats etc.
For people like myself living in the region pegged for exploitation, we need to know that the mining of our region will return economic benefits to us and our families…we also need to know and confidently believe that the mining companies will not destroy the very landscape and environment we love and the very reason many of us have chosen to live here. We need to know that the mining companies will respect our environment, our communities, our people and that they will do what is necessary to mitigate environmental damage in the extraction process and restore the landscape, flora and fauna and the natural beauty of the plateau when they are done.
Sadly, there is quite a lot of evidence on the plateau today that earlier miners have not tidied up after themselves and the detritus of former mining operations litter the landscape…this is unacceptable in this day and age, how can we be sure that Solid Energy, Bathurst et al will not leave the countryside in disarray once they have collected their bounty and move on to the next natural resource conquest?
Environmental considerations are paramount in mining companies strategies these days. To minimise the impact of their activities on the environment and repair any damage to the best of their ability is a necessary and responsible approach to resource extraction and must be factored into mining operational budgets. But the fact remains that in order to uncover the riches beneath the Denniston Plateau, much damage to the landscape is necessary.
Economic progress is essential for our local economy, coal mining will bring much needed revenue into our region, but at what cost? The exploitation of one resource will cost us another…the expansive beauty of the Denniston Plateau is at risk…unless the mining companies take full responsibility for restoring the land once they have extracted the coal..and they must satisfy concerned local residents that this will be the case…local evidence suggests the remnants of mining operations will remain for centuries, but we need to take a long view on the restoration process.
Nature will eventually overcome all challenges to its beauty, but the mining companies have a duty of care to ensure that everything is done to minimise the environmental impact of their activities and ensure that, once they’re done, the plateau can return to its former glory as quickly and effectively as possible. The mining companies should also ensure that the economic benefits resultant from the extraction of a local natural resource will flow on to the community and the people living here.
The Buller District Council and West Coast Regional Council also have a duty of care to their ratepayers to ensure that a good portion of the great wealth contained in our mountain tops remains in our region and that multi-national companies and their shareholders do not fleece us of what is rightfully ours. A balance of social, economic and environmental considerations must be found and, while this may be a somewhat tricky task, every effort must be made to ensure that the extraction of mineral wealth from our region doesn’t leave us with little more than a large hole in the ground.
Current and future generations should benefit from the economic gain coal mining will undoubtedly bring to the region and the infrastructure development that will result from the influx of $$$, but they should also be able to wander around high on the Denniston Plateau as I did on a sunny day in May with my mate Dave and enjoy the expanse and wonder of this unique and special place.