The human side of mining

This is a powerful story about the effects of historical mercury mining in a community where new mining is proposed. We’ve obtained the transcript of the Radio New Zealand story that ran this morning so you can read why Ngati Hau claimants are united in their opposition to mining in the future because of their past.

GEOFF ROBINSON:        It’s eight minutes to eight.  Claimants recounting their histories to the Waitangi Tribunal in Whangarei this week have told of the lethal impact of mercury mining on Maori families.  The Tribunal is into its fifth week of hearings on the Ngapuhi claims.  Lois Williams reports.

LOIS WILLIAMS:              The Ngati Hau people from Whakapara north of Whangarei are no strangers to mining.  They’ve led protests this year over plans by an Australian company to prospect for gold in the Puhipuhi Valley and this week they’ve told the Waitangi Tribunal mining took a grim toll on the health of their parents’ generation and the environment.

GEORGE DAVIS:             We have lived through and seen the effects of the mine once already.  It has brought pain, sickness and death.

LOIS WILLIAMS:              From the late 1880s until the end of World War Two the Puhipuhi hills were mined for mercury, at first underground and later by open casting.  George Davis told the Tribunal the open cast mine and the mercury processing plant polluted local streams, killed off the eels and poisoned local people who worked there.  He says mines inspectors raised safety concerns, but the company ignored them.

GEORGE DAVIS:             Collecting and extracting mercury was a manual process.  Basically, somebody walked around the site with a bucket releasing and emptying valves.  This meant they were constantly at risk of being exposed to the mercury.

LOIS WILLIAMS:              Mr Davis says people knew little about those risks.  Local children used to collect the clay-like cinnabar ore that contained the mercury and make model animals out of it.  And rock for the mine was crushed for use on local roads.

GEORGE DAVIS:             There were no drains, so when the rain came it just ran off into the roads and into the fields and the streams.  Everything that lived along the sides of the roads died.  The grasses and the plants, all of it.  As children, we and our friends used to walk those roads barefoot.

LOIS WILLIAMS:              Velma Sutherland told the Tribunal the 30s and 40s were a time of sickness for Ngati Hau.  She said miscarriages were common.  Children died of unnamed illnesses and young people lost all their teeth.  Her father and uncle, who worked in the mercury processing plant, died early of cancer and her mother died young after losing a kidney in her thirties.

VELMA SUTHERLAND: There was a lot of that during our time.  People growing up with a lot of sickness and never quite being well and young people too.  We didn’t question it at the time, but these were bad sicknesses.

LOIS WILLIAMS:              George Davis says Ngati Hau were never informed or consulted about the mercury mining and that was a breach of their treaty rights.  But the hapu says it lost control over its lands as soon as the Crown began issuing freehold title to small groups or individual Maori.  In the past, the hapu held land collectively, with use rights determined by elders.  Hana Maxwell told the Tribunal the Crown not only abolished all that, it refused to allow Maori women, who had traditional rights to land, to own or inherit it under the new system.

HANA MAXWELL:           In the Native Land Court, and particularly in the Ngati Hau blocks, there was discussion over some of the lands that some of the women felt that they should, you know, have sort of access to.  But that particular legislation at the time didn’t allow the women to actually succeed to those interests.

LOIS WILLIAMS:              And the pain caused by that rule is still raw today.  Huhana Seve told the Tribunal she’s one of many Ngati Hau people who have no stake in their ancestral land because they descend through a female line.

HUHANA SEVE:             There’s no whenua for us to conduct our Maori customary practices, as my grandfather once did.  We have no papakainga to call home.  We have no ukaipo.  Our whanau are buried still in Whakapara and we’re still active participants in hapu affairs, but we have no turangawaewae in the Puhipuhi Valley anymore.

LOIS WILLIAMS:              The Ngati Hau claimants say, although they have very little land left in the Puhipuhi hills, they’re united in their opposition to mining in the future because of their past.  For Morning Report, Lois Williams.


9 Comments Posted

  1. @Si Good quote, but I didn’t say objective journalism. I said objective journalists. I’m sure they would have no issue with interviewing the people who support the mine with the same level of professionalism. Catherine Delahunty was therefore just passing on the results. It is also great that people are talking about the potential risks that the community faces. It’s the kind of investigation that should be done by the people who are interested in the proposal. It’s good risk management to dig up what information locals can provide and what lessons they can learn from the past, before they dig it up.

  2. V.Ujdur asks:

    In what way has the intrinsic “safety” improved?

    Mining today is less dangerous than it ever has been, not because it is “intrinsically” any less dangerous, but because we have become better at managing the dangers.

    As an example, have a look at Historical Data on Mine Disasters in the United States from the US Department of Labour, which summarises the stats from over a century of mining in the USA. The first two paragraphs (with my added emphasis) read:

    The term “mine disaster” historically has been applied to mine accidents claiming five or more lives. Mine disasters, in this sense, once were appallingly common. For instance, the single year of 1907 saw 18 coal mine disasters, plus two more disasters in the metal and nonmetal mining industry. Among the disasters in 1907 was history’s worst–the Monongah coal mine explosion, which claimed 362 lives and impelled Congress to created the Bureau of Mines.

    Mine accidents have declined dramatically in number and severity through decades of research, technology, and preventive programs. Today, mine accidents resulting in five or more deaths are no longer common. However, preventing recurrence of disasters like those of the past remains a top priority requiring constant vigilance by management, labor, and government.

  3. @V.Ujdur “So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here–not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” Hunter S Thompson

  4. Thanks for publishing this, Catherine. It didn’t make the local newspapers, and its important local information for all those who are responsible for re-invigorating the potential for mining in the Puhipuhi area. The mercury the Ngati Hau talked about is still present in the soil and rocks in that area, and ANY mining or exploration will disturb it, and when it rains (as it does frequently)the mercury-tainted runoff will go into the vegetation, the waterways and the underground aquifers which people use today for their drinking water. That is why Ngati Hau (and others in the local community) continue to oppose mining in this area.

  5. @MacDoctor, Catherine Delahunty does not provide a stance on mining, the irrationality lies with you. Do you listen to RadioNZ National? They are
    impartial and objective journalists.

  6. At Ngawha Springs, just across the hills, the local geothermal activity discharges mercury vapour into the air. It was well known that mercury collected in the moss in gutters of the local houses. It was also in high concentrations of the hot water bathing pools that the locals used. These were all NATURAL discharges. Even if all the problems the claimants have put forward were actually due to mercury. it would be very hard to separate what was from the mining and what was from the pre-exploitation environment.
    There is also no proposal to mine mercury again so what is the relevance?

  7. All you are doing with this post is confirming that your opposition to mining is irrational. Mercury processing has not caused the problems described above for over a hundred years.

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