Solid Energy defi(n)es sustainability in Southland

Putting Solid Energy’s own definition of sustainable business practice to the test, on the ground in Southland

Last month CEO Dr Don Elder told a select committee all about Solid Energy’s definition of sustainable business practice:

“For our business to be sustainable in the long term we must carry out all our activities in ways that achieve our current business objectives without unreasonably compromising our ability to meet our future objectives.

“We will therefore manage our business in accordance with sustainability principles that consider our specific expectations for value, our people and communities, health and safety, the environment and our reputation.”

Solid Energy was meeting and exceeding sustainability expectations, he said, because of the ‘broader’ secondary aspects of the definition, about people, communities, and so on.

Lignite mining in Southland is one of the company’s ‘activities’. Letters to the Southland Times editor, and, anecdotally, some unease at Council level, suggest that (in terms of the definition) locals are beginning to doubt the promised value of the proposals, and are worried about their effects on people, communities, and the local Southland environment.

On a recent two-day visit to Mataura and Croydon, Coal Action Network (CAN) member Jeanette Fitzsimons visited a number of farms, and spoke to a number of local people. “The main thing is that this is not me speculating, this is what local Southlanders told me,” she says.

It raises questions for Solid Energy — committed as it is to carrying out all its activities ‘sustainably’ — that deserve a better answer than glib reference to a disputed number of jobs (with guesstimates I have seen ranging from a couple of thousand to a few hundred, depending whether the guesser is for or against lignite mining).

Dr Elder spoke in terms of “trillions” for NZ Inc. In Southland, though, over 4,000 hectares of prime farm land has been bought up by Solid Energy for lignite mining. On a map of the Mataura Valley, it makes big spreading stains. That is some loss of economic potential for Southland, which needs to be offset against the gain.

The sale of the farmland is already having secondary social and environmental effects. Those farms are leased now, not owned. According to Fitzsimons, the houses, farm buildings and waterways are not being maintained to the usual standard; long-term, they won’t be there, swallowed by open cast mines. The difference, she says, is already visible.

One farmer, a small island in the middle of Solid Energy-owned farms, says he is not moving, at any price. Another third-generation farming family have a border with Solid Energy four metres from their woolshed. “Their farm is very beautiful,” Fitzsimons says; they run a bed and breakfast, on a hilltop with a view which they expect to become open cast coal pits. Much of the lignite, and the bought-up land, encroaches [p 10] on the edge of the little Mataura township.

Noise, dust, blasting, diesel pollution from mining vehicles, and high volumes of heavy traffic will transform this pastoral area. Dr Elder himself told the select committee that lignite is unable to be transported more than about fifty kilometres. Southland will be the production hub. According to the CAN website, three possible sites have been mentioned for a lignite “industrial park”: one near the New Vale mine, one near a disused Mataura paper mill, and another near a mine pit south of Mataura.

A group called Lower Mataura Landcare estimates that, without taking into account lignite’s short haul from mining to processing, once the locally-proposed projects reach full production, the Mataura Valley could see up to six million tonnes of product (briquettes, diesel, fertiliser) leaving the area per year: 114,000 trucks or 3,782 train loads annually; 300 53-tonne trucks or 11 30-wagon trains per day.

There is concern about the local acquifer, which is very pure, and poorly understood. There is more water coming into it than can be explained. Lignite mining affects water. The effect that dewatering (pumping it out of the ground) and discharge of mining contaminated water would have on the ground water on which local farming depends is speculative. It needs to be further studied, but it is a risk.

There is concern about the health effects already experienced by Southlanders from living near open cast mines, such as Nightcaps. Fitzsimons met one woman who developed serious asthma for the first time in her life in her fifties when she moved to Nightcaps, and another whose children had bad respiratory problems including coughing up blood. There was some suggestion that she has been treated by the local authorities as a crank. Whether or not that one story bears weight, the real life (and death) health effects of particulate pollution are true.

Solid Energy, and the industry, will argue that mining is a temporary feature; that this is not an irreversible change to the landscape from pastoral to industrial, because the land, in the end, will be fully restored. They are surely not going to stockpile the top soil for decades; it will be onsold, a nice little sideline. If one green paddock in the end looks much like another, they are not at all the same, underneath.

All these are more local, more immediate and poignant than the global climate implications, and they are not in fact just about Southland. To meet its own accountability measures — its promises to us all, as its owners — Solid Energy must respond to these questions.

Promises of the kind made to the committee the other day, to make up for damage in Southland by doing good things somewhere else, for net benefit to New Zealand’s environment, offers Dr Elder just the right amount of wriggle room, neither global nor local.