by Catherine Delahunty
It is supposed to be warm in Te Tai Tokerau but it was a freezing outside when I went exploring the dirt roads behind Puhipuhi, north of Whangarei last week. Some tangata whenua and other locals showed me the old mercury mining and new gold exploration areas which mining company Newmont Gold is very interested in. We drove up through farmland on to a plateau stopping to look at outcrops of cinnabar mercury laden rocks. The geology of this area is streaked with pink metals, hence the abandoned mercury mines in the area and hence the possibility of gold.
A local farmer told us the story of how these mercury laden rocks had been used as road metal on local roads until about 12 years ago when it was realised that crushed mercury was toxic. The vehicles were crushing the road metal into fine particles, releasing mercury into the environment. So they scraped most of the road and dumped the toxic material in an area I visited which showed no signs of remediation. There is one small section of the road near Whakapara Marae which is known to glow pinky red on a sunny day.
I also went to the old mercury mine site and tailings dump area but it is surrounded by an impenetrable gorse hedge. It is good to know that people are not straying across it, but it made me wonder what kind of monitoring and remediation is occurring. I have found the site listed on the Northland Regional Council Hazardous Activities and Industries List and will be asking the council how it is being monitored and remediated.
Why is this important and why are we worried about Newmont mining this area? As locals explained to me the plateau where the old mercury mines and new prospects are is the headwaters of a number of large creeks. These waterways run down into the Hikurangi wetlands and the Wairoa River. The Wairoa River feeds freshwater into the Kaipara Harbour. There are stories of past workers and locals getting sick, not to mention concerns about Newmont and its track record in the Coromandel and overseas.
After the visit to the Puhipuhi/Whakapara area I spoke at the launch of “Minewatch Northland” in Whangarei. About 80 people attended the meeting and committed to challenging Newmont and other companies who want to develop toxic hard rock industrial scale mining. Some MPs from the region think foreign miners are the economic salvation but people I spoke to want clean water and sustainable jobs with real evidence of local benefit!