Proto Resources’ Dans Hill Nickel Mine is a nightmare

Every now and then a development comes along which truly shocks even the most cynical conservationist.

Proto Resources’ Dans Hill Mine proposal is for a 210ha  open-cut nickel mine, half of which is within the Dans Hill Conservation Area (see map). Mining this area would result in the destruction of half of the known population of the nationally listed critically endangered herb Tetratheca gunnii, possibly Tasmania’s most endangered plant species. But wait, there’s more. One hundred hectares of the proposed mining area was purchased in 1999 – 2000 with Australian Government funds through the Private Forests Reserve Program specifically to protect Tetratheca gunnii.

The Dans Hill Mine proposal was referred to the Australian Government for assessment under the EPBC Act in September 2009. While we believe there are good reasons for the Australian Government to refuse the proposal,  conditional approval is likely to be given with a final decision by the Australian Government being dependent upon the assessment by the Tasmanian Environment Protection Authority (EPA).

The EPA has prepared ‘Draft Guidelines for the preparation of a Development Proposal and Environmental Management Plan’ (DPEMP) and these will be finalised in the next few months. Proto Resources will then prepare a DPEMP based on the guidelines and submit it to both state and federal governments. The DPEMP will be released for public comment and a final decision will be known later this year at the earliest.

Input to the Australian Government assessment process

The TCT recommended that the Dans Hill Mine proposal be deemed unacceptable and refused, because the project would destroy populations of the nationally listed critically endangered herb T. gunnii (only 250 plants remain in the world), also a population of the nationally listedvulnerable Epacris virgata shrub and could affect habitat of listed fauna. .We asserted that no level of impact on critically endangered species is acceptable and off-set strategies are too risky for such species.

T. gunnii has struggled to produce viable seeds and some populations  have needed artificial pollination. To deliberately destroy half of the known remaining plants of an endangered species, that has  reproductive problems, and allow a mining company to experiment with an off-set program to see if plants can be regrown in an unnatural, mined, revegetated environment, is very risky to say the least.

Proto Resources admits in referral documents submitted to the Australian Government, (Attachment 2 – North Barker Botanical Survey and Fauna Assessment, January 2008, page 13), that ‘T. gunnii is likely to be one of the most endangered species in Tasmania. It may be at a high risk of extinction if the causes of decline cannot be reversed’. Given this statement, we cannot fathom why destruction of any individual plants of this species could be considered.

We also pointed out to the Australian Government (though it is not legally required to consider this) that the Proto Resources proposal would involve mining in part of Dans Hill Conservation Area, which was purchased with their funding specifically to conserve populations of T. gunnii and other threatened plant species.

If the mine proposal is approved, we have recommended that the proponentbe required to repay to the Australian Government the purchase price of the land.

TCT’s additional comments to the EPA on the Draft Assessment Guidelines

Sustainable use of a reserve

The Proto Resources proposal is sited primarily in the Dans Hill Conservation Area and we assert that the type of mining proposed (broad-scale open cut) is not consistent with the values and purposes of a conservation area as defined in Schedule 1 of the Nature Conservation Act 2002.

The ‘purposes of reservation’ for a conservation area allow for the ‘sustainable use of the natural resources of that area of land’. Given the type of mining proposed and the values that exist in the reserve, the proposal cannot possibly be construed as sustainable.

The TCT recommends that the proponent be required to determine whether the proposed activities are legally permitted in the relevant reserve category and, if so, under what circumstances.

 Additional surveys

Given that most of the Dans Hill Conservation Area has recently been burnt in wildfire, it is essential that the proponent be required to do surveys for the next four years (allowing for plants that are slow to germinate or grow large enough to be detected), to determine if existing populations have survived being burnt or if new populations have germinated.

An absence of appropriate fire may have resulted in many T. gunnii

populations only being present as seeds in the soil and would not have been detected in previous surveys.

Taxpayers funded the land purchase

The proponent must be required to assess the proposal in relation to impacts upon the interests of the taxpayers of Australia, who funded the land purchase, and whether the purchase cost should be repaid.

This proposal raises a number of important issues

Projects such as this mine should not get to the starting line, let alone have chance of being approved. Tasmania’s environmental legislation must change.

Critically endangered species such as T. gunnii should not be destroyed except where the action aims solely to improve their conservation status, i.e. management actions such as ecological burns. Destruction of highly threatened species cannot be justified through provision of off-set and mitigation strategies;  developments must totally avoid impacts on them. The Threatened Species Protection Act must be amended to ensure that ‘taking’ of threatened species can only be permitted for conservation purposes.

The National Parks and Reserved Lands Act should be amended to ban mining in reserved land, with the possible exception ofland which is largely devoid of natural values, such as previously mined areas that cannot be rehabilitated or where mining may result in those values being rehabilitated to a higher standard than if left undisturbed.. Until this is achievedthe definition of ‘sustainable use’ should at least be changed to explicitly exclude mining methods such as open- cut mining.

Where government programs use public money to ‘protect’ natural areas, such as the Private Forest Reserve Program, they must ensure protection is complete and in perpetuity.

Peter McGlone