A Canadian-Australian mining giant is preemptively ramping up its operations in and around protected land on New Zealand’s North Island, local conservationists and residents say.
Waihi, a town of nearly 6,000, sits at the edge of the Coromandel Peninsula, an 85-kilometre stretch of largely protected conservation land rich in gold and silver.
OceanaGold is proposing a 6.8-kilometre tunnel that would travel from Waihi to Wharekirauponga (WKP), in the Coromandel, where it purchased rights to mine and explore in 2016.
The mining company has already started working on the tunnel on private farmland, even though it hasn’t been approved by local officials yet, said resident Sue Peachey.
“My mother came over and handed me the project overview of this tunnel and I just felt sick to my stomach,” Peachey told VICE World News. “My neighbours were completely taken by surprise, too.”
Peachey said she worries the tunnel will increase traffic in the area and further industrialize protected public lands as well as Waihi. “New Zealand just declared a climate emergency. This isn’t how you respond to the climate emergency,” Peachey said.
The project is listed on OceanaGold’s website but OceanaGold denies that it’s started any work that hasn't been given the go-ahead.
In a statement it said it won’t proceed with any “physical works” or apply for permits in WKP until “comprehensive consultation and engagement” with locals, Indigenous communities, regulators, and other stakeholders takes place.
Hauraki District Mayor Toby Adams told VICE World News in a statement that while OceanaGold hasn’t applied for permits yet, his government is aware exploration has started in rural land in Waihi—there’s a drill rig that allows OceanaGold to determine ground condition and stability. He said the activity falls under a range of works under the district’s “permitted activities.”
“The company doesn’t need resource consent to do this exploration work,” Adams said, adding it’s too early to gauge whether most residents support or reject OceanaGold’s proposals.
But some locals are still worried.
“We have serious environmental concerns,” said Augusta Macassey-Pickard, a coordinator with local environmental advocacy group Coromandel Watchdog of Hauraki. “I am now also deeply disturbed over the lack of transparency, the lack of community engagement.”
OceanaGold runs New Zealand’s two largest gold mines: the Martha gold mine project, also in Waihi, and the Macraes operation on New Zealand’s less populated South Island. The company is now planning to expand the Martha pit, build a smaller adjacent pit, and put up a new tailings storage facility, the third in the area.
“If that tailings dam failed, it wouldn’t just take out the town, it would take out an entire river system and go into the Hauraki Gulf, which would have devastating consequences,” she said.
Oceanagold’s operations put at least 12 species of plants and animals in grave danger, Macassey-Pickard said. One animal is a snail found in Hauraki Gulf, the world’s only bioluminescent freshwater species.
Another species, the red, green, and brown-mottled Archey’s frog, is roughly the size of an adult fingernail and has been called a “modern-day dinosaur” because it remains almost identical to its fossilized, 15-million-year-old relatives. The species is deaf and blind, so there are concerns it won’t be able to sidestep mining operations as Oceanagold’s work ramps up.
The company offered to help relocate the frog, but “amphibians are very sensitive to even a very slight change in their environmental factors, so that was thankfully declined,” Macassey-Pickard said.
Adams said applications brought forward by OceanaGold will be assessed to determine possible environmental effects before rejected or approved. If projects are approved, there will be conditions in place to “remedy and mitigate any potential effects” on people and the environment, he said.
“We know Wharekirauponga is home to a number of important species, and we understand how important this ecosystem is,” said OceanaGold spokesperson Melissa Bowerman.
Bowerman reiterated that all mining in the area will be underground and will follow detailed studies and consultation.
Coromandel MP Scott Simpson told local news site Stuff OceanaGold’s project will have his support, as long as it meets regulatory requirements.
“OceanaGold is a significant employer of local people both in Waihi and beyond,” he said.
Peachey met with local OceanaGold spokespeople to find out more information about the new tunnel in Waihi, but she wasn’t given clear answers, she said. “They said they’d reach back out in four days,” Peachey said, seven days after her meeting.
Waihi, a low traffic, no-exit town surrounded by farmland, is known for its reliance on mining, with the industry making up a significant driver of the local economy. The town is one of the poorest areas in New Zealand.
Schedule 4 of New Zealand’s Crown Minerals Act outlines conservation land that cannot be used for mining, but Macassey-Pickard said it doesn’t cover Coromandel Forest. OceanaGold and regulators have “interpreted that legislation as meaning you only can’t opencast mine, but you can underground mine,” Macassey-Pickard said.
People can’t expect mining companies to act in good faith either because none of their environmental standards are binding, said Catherine Delahunty, the chairperson of Coromandel Watchdog and a former New Zealand Green MP.
This year, Coromandel Watchdog took OceanaGold and New Zealand’s finance minister to the country’s High Court to stop the development of the new tailings pond. The group argued the company was allowed to acquire land near Waihi after the government failed to assess and acknowledge the “detrimental effects'' associated with OceanaGold’s acquisition of it. The watchdog lost the case and members say the corporation and the government are now seeking $92,000 in costs.
OceanaGold has faced allegations of ecological devastation elsewhere. VICE World News previously reported how OceanaGold’s Didipio mine in the Philippines resulted in polluted surface water and the loss of land. The mine has also displaced Indigenous communities in the area and continued operations even after its permits expired.
Following VICE World News’ investigation, the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines in Canada circulated a petition to introduce new federal legislation that would force Canada to acknowledge its role in mining overseas as well as the ongoing human rights and environmental violations associated with it. The group has since collected enough signatures to have the legislation tabled by its sponsor, NDP MP Heather MacPherson.
At the moment, Canada has an ombudsperson role, introduced last year, that reviews claims of human and environmental rights abuses by mining and oil and gas companies. But it doesn’t have the authority to compel or summon companies to participate in investigations.
Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Michael Cimpaye said Canada expects companies to collaborate with watchdogs like the ombudsperson in good faith and to uphold human rights and environmental protections.
According to Delahunty, the difference between advocacy in the Philippines versus countries like New Zealand and Canada is that “we don’t get shot.”
The two countries are regarded around the world for their commitment to liberalism and democracy, but Delahunty called it all “rhetoric” and said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern don’t follow it up with meaningful action, often supporting practices that threaten the environment, worsen climate change, and make environmental rehabilitation impossible. Their governments also don’t hold large mining players to account, she said.
When Ardern came into power in 2016, she announced plans to end all mining on conservation land. But so far, she hasn’t ushered in the policy.
Ardern’s office declined VICE World News' request for comment, citing the ongoing pandemic as a priority.
“What has happened is that the mining industry and, in particular, OceanaGold, has totally freaked out and just gone hard,” said Macassey-Pickard.
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Correction: A previous version of this article said OceanaGold is suing Coromandel Watchdog for $92,000, when, in fact, the Crown and the company are seeking $92,000 in costs.