Smith embarrasses Labour over Bathurst
Conservation Minister Nick Smith batted off opposition questions in Parliament about granting access for a coking coal mine to Bathurst Resources with a letter from the Labour Party's West Coast MP Damien O'Connor urging him to approve the mine.
The controversial development on the Denniston Plateau is stuck in the courts amid legal challenges to resource consents granted to Bathurst in August 2011.
Mr Smith granted access rights over Department of Conservation land last Wednesday to allow the mine to go ahead, beating by one day changes to the Crown Minerals Act which would have added a new public consultation process to the resource consent process already under way for some four years.
The Royal Forest & Bird Society of New Zealand has led opposition to the mine, which is in a bleak but ecologically significant area above Westport, which has also seen coal mining for more than a century.
In a May 2 letter to Mr Smith, tabled in Parliament, Mr O'Connor wrote: "As Minister of Conservation, your involvement is crucial to the withdrawal of appeals against the mine and I urge you to take whatever action you can to support Bathurst Mining and the future of the Westport community."
The letter followed a Westport town meeting attended by 150 people "upset with the continuous appeals lodged by Forest & Bird against the mine development and the impact this uncertainty is having on their livelihoods".
Bathurst recently laid off its West Coast mine manager in the absence of a mine to manage.
To questions from Green MP Catherine Delahunty, Mr Smith said the 5 percent of the plateau covered by the access agreement "has already been mined, has a dam and an artificial lake, a road and bulldozer tracks" and vegetation was largely gorse and broom.
It had neither national park nor conservation status, but was classed as "stewardship" land, the lowest grading for conservation land.
Bathurst has been in the Christchurch High Court this week facing an appeal from Forest & Bird over the Environment Court's conditional approval of resource consents for the Escarpment open cast mine development.
Forest & Bird is arguing the court was wrong not consider the environmental impact if a nearby area known as the Sullivan Block, belonging to Solid Energy, was also mined. The block is licenced for mining.
Escarpment is one of several open cast mines Bathurst plans for the Denniston and Stockton plateaus. It will face similar hurdles on other mine applications, with the next in line being Whareatea West, adjacent to the Escarpment site.
Mr Smith told Parliament the Bathurst development was important for the West Coast, which had suffered from the Pike River mine tragedy and closure, followed by state-owned coal miner Solid Energy's mothballing of the underground Spring Creek mine.