Modern Australian

Proposal to mine fossil-rich site in New Zealand sparks campaign to protect it

  • Written by Nic Rawlence, Lecturer in Ancient DNA, University of Otago

An Australian company’s application to mine a fossil-rich site in the south of New Zealand has been met with fierce criticism and a campaign to protect it in perpetuity.

Foulden Maar, near Dunedin, is arguably the most important terrestrial fossil site in New Zealand. It comprises a complete ecosystem. This makes it one of the most important sites from the Miocene in the southern hemisphere and comparable to the famous, UNESCO-protected Messel Pit in Germany.

A maar is a small deep volcanic crater lake. Foulden Maar formed 23 million years ago after an explosive eruption . It contains tens of thousands of exquisitely preserved fossils of plants and animals, all of which represent extinct biodiversity.

The fossils are preserved between layers of diatomite, itself the fossilised microscopic remains of siliceous aquatic algae called diatoms. Plaman Resources, a majority Malaysian-owned subsidiary of Australian company Plaman Gobal, has applied to create an open pit mine to extract the diatomite, trademarked as ‘black pearl’, to turn it into pig and poultry feed.

This would be like mining volcanic ash at Pompeii for pig food.

Proposal to mine fossil-rich site in New Zealand sparks campaign to protect it This fossil leaf from Foulden Maar shows damage by insects. Supplied, CC BY-ND

Read more: It's not worth wiping out a species for the Yeelirrie uranium mine

Community and scientific concerns

The protests by the science community and the public were sparked in April by a leaked report by investment banker Goldman Sachs, which said that:

… an appeal … is likely to come from a small number of local residents, who are not well resourced.

The Save Foulden Maar petition has since reached almost 10,000 signatures. Some big names are supporting it, including New Zealand’s former prime minister Helen Clark.

The economic case put forward by Plaman Resources in its application to the Overseas Investment Office has been heavily criticised and described as unjustifiable vandalism. New Zealand and international scientists have challenged the scientific case for ‘black pearl’ as a food additive for stock.

Public and scientific opinion has since changed the Dunedin City Council’s position. At first, the council supported the mine, but it has now promised to protect Foulden Maar for scientific research and educational purposes. The University of Otago has also called for the site’s protection. Both institutions have now formalised their opposition through submissions to the Overseas Investment Office.

Meanwhile, Plaman Resources tried to shore up support by offering monetary inducements to the University of Otago if it dropped its opposition to the mine. The company also proposed a swap between Foulden Maar and the 15-million-year-old Hindon Maar fossil deposits. The latter has no diatomite deposits that are economically viable for Plaman, but for palaeontologists this would be like having to choose between the pyramids of Giza or the Sistine Chapel.

Read more: We must rip up our environmental laws to address the extinction crisis

Precious fossil site

Until recently, Foulden Maar was known mostly to the scientific community, but had no public profile to ensure ongoing access to the site.

The maar crater formed 23 million years ago, filled with a small hydrologically closed lake that gradually filled in and preserved an entire subtropical rainforest ecosystem that once flourished there. It links New Zealand to what was occurring at the time in New Caledonia, Australia, and even South America.

The site is about a kilometre wide and nearly 200 metres deep. It contains fossils of plants and animals that lived in the lake and surrounding rainforest, including the world’s oldest galaxiid fish (whitebait) and scale insects on leaves. Of the tens of thousands of exquisitely preserved fossils, only 30 have been described so far by the international team working at the site.

Research at the northern hemisphere equivalent, the Messel Pit, has been ongoing for over a century and shows no signs of slowing down. There are hundreds of new species yet to be described at Foulden Maar. Each fossil must be painstakingly separated from its diatomite tomb and preserved, a process that can take around a week per fossil. Bringing this lost world to life is incompatible with the Plaman Resources proposal for a 24/7 operation.

Proposal to mine fossil-rich site in New Zealand sparks campaign to protect it A scanning electron microscope image reveals fossil diatoms, present in their billions at Foulden Maar. Supplied, CC BY-ND

Hidden climate record

There is more to Foulden Maar than the fossils. At its deepest point, it preserves a unique climate record covering 120,000 years. It is the only site in the southern hemisphere with a climate record that shows annual resolution of this kind and shows links between the tropics and Antarctica 23 million years ago.

Data from the site are being used in predictive global climate models. There is no way in which the full thickness of the maar lake could be preserved for ongoing climate research if the mining proposal went ahead.

Foulden Maar needs legal protection from mining in perpetuity, whether through changes under the Resource Management Act, the Dunedin City Council District Plan, or the Reserves Act. One possibility would be to designate the site as as an Outstanding Natural Feature.

Ideally, Foulden Maar could link in with the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark, which will soon be proposed as New Zealand’s first UNESCO Global Geopark, promoting scientific research and fossil tourism. This proposal, championed by Helen Clark, includes over 40 geological sites, including a goldfield of international scientific importance at Nenthorn, just north of Foulden Maar.

Our fight to protect Foulden Maar will no doubt continue. Plaman Resources has indicated it will appeal any decisions to protect the site. The company has also threatened to mine the section it already owns if it doesn’t get approval to buy a neighbouring farm to make its operation economically viable.

Misconceptions remain, such as Dunedin city councillor Lee Vandervis’s comment that the “climate change record of the time is less significant than the fossils and … people could already research the climate at different periods in time on the internet”. This is like saying we don’t need cows to produce milk as we can buy it from a dairy.

It is nearly 50 years since concerned New Zealanders joined forces to stop an aluminium smelter being built at Aramoana at the head of Otago Harbour. Foulden Maar is our generation’s Aramoana.

In the best interests of the fossils, the locals and scientific research, Plaman Resources should walk away from this. Mining is littered with bad investments. Write this off as one of those.

Authors: Nic Rawlence, Lecturer in Ancient DNA, University of Otago

Read more http://theconversation.com/proposal-to-mine-fossil-rich-site-in-new-zealand-sparks-campaign-to-protect-it-118505

NEWS

how Australian politicians would bridge the trust divide

Unsurprisingly, Australian politicians are happier than their constituents with the way our democracy works.ShutterstockWe hear a lot from citizens about the failings of Australian democracy and the need for reform...

Don't calm down! Exam stress may not be fun but it can help you get better marks

If you let it work for you, stress can be your secret weapon.from shutterstock.comTwo-thirds of young people experience levels of exam stress that mental health organisation ReachOut describes as “worrying”...

Facebook's online workers are sick of being treated like bots

Mark Zuckerberg and other tech CEOs may have to take notice of their workers' complaints.Aaron Schwarz / ShutterstockReports of Facebook moderators’ appalling working conditions have been making headlines worldwide. Workers...

We can’t drought-proof Australia, and trying is a fool's errand

The push to 'drought-proof' Australia is dangerous nonsense.AAP Image/Mick TsikasThere is a phrase in the novel East of Eden that springs to mind every time politicians speak of “drought-proofing” Australia:And...

Our land abounds in nature strips – surely we can do more than mow a third of urban green space

Even the standard grassed nature strip has value for local wildlife.Michelle/Flickr, CC BY-NC-NDYou may mock the national anthem by singing “Our land abounds in nature strips” but what you might...

These 3 factors predict a child's chance of obesity in adolescence (and no, it's not just their weight)

The mother's education level is also a factor.Brainsil/ShutterstockThree simple factors can predict whether a child is likely to be overweight or obese by the time they reach adolescence: the child’s...

China has form as a sports bully, but its full-court press on the NBA may backfire

It’s unlikely Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, realised he’d be sparking an international diplomatic incident when, on October 4, he tweeted the following Stand with...

Alan Jones v Scott Morrison on the question of how you feed a cow

The battle between Jones and Morrison came down to the repeated, and, for the seething Jones, existential question, 'How does that feed a cow?'ShutterstockThe last PM shock jock Alan Jones...

In contrast to Australia's success with hepatitis C, our response to hepatitis B is lagging

While hepatitis B can't be cured in the same way hepatitis C can, effective treatment is available.From shutterstock.comAround one-third of Australians living with hepatitis C have been cured in the...

Australia is facing a looming cyber emergency, and we don't have the high-tech workforce to counter it

Nick Warner, the new director general of the Office of National Intelligence, has sounded the alarm about Australia's lack of preparedness to counter cyber-threats.Alan Porritt/AAPThis is part of a new...

Comprehensive gun register part of next stage of firearms law reform post Christchurch shootings

New Zealand's PM Jacinda Ardern, police minister Stuart Nash (right) and the minister for Christchurch regeneration Megan Woods announcing stronger gun laws and the creation of a firearms registry.AAP/David Alexander...

Double counting of emissions cuts may undermine Paris climate deal

Ice floe adrift in Vincennes Bay in the Australian Antarctic Territory. There are fears efforts to combat global warming will be undermined by double counting of carbon credits.AAP/Torsten BlackwoodIn the...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

Best Out of Waste in New South WalesGlamorous Gifts - 5 Luxe Giving Options When Only the Best Will DoFood for collagenIs Rhinoplasty Right for You?Winter fun in ColoradoSlots SecretsEssential Personal Hygiene Tips for TravelingTop 3 Affordable Activities To Do In Los AngelesTop 4 Reasons Why a Gas Fireplace Is an Ideal SolutionAdvantages of Using an Insulin PumpMaths – when it’s time to break free of your misbeliefsStrictly For Women:5 Steps To Top 5 Designer Sunglasses That Celebrities Are WearingBest Paradise Islands You Should Visit in AustraliaMost Popular Mexican Destinations for Australian Visitors