Saturday, January 07, 2012

Tui Mine

This is as close as its possible to drive to Tui Mine these days, and it was far too rainy a day to get out and walk (especially given what I know about the run-off from the mine entrances and tailings).
Te Aroha is a small town under its eponymous  mountain not far from here. Both the town and the mountain have simultaneously fascinated and repelled me for years, and drawn me to write poetry and make art about them. The imposing physical environment, its social history as a spa, and more recent tragic statistics as the highest suicide rate in NZ have each begged a creative response that I have never yet been able to live up to.

Yet, when I recently read about the remediation of the Tui Mine, perched halfway up the mountain overlooking the town, all the ideas I've that have been floating in the back of my mind for decades began to coalesce with my current focus on extractive industries in general and mining in particular.  Tui, and Te Aroha, sit on the other side of the Kaimai mountain range and a few dozen kilometers northwards of Tauranga, where the MV Rena continues breaking up in a dismal oil spill, already the subject of two large scale works in progress in my studio. I am now also developing a new piece to respond to what I have been learning about Tui Mine and its impact on Te Aroha.

The Tui Mine has nearly 150 years history of relatively unsuccessful mining endeavors. Some 80 different primary and secondary minerals are present in the quartz under the Tui claim. However, gold (which is certainly present) has resisted repeated attempts to extract it using each new technological development in the industry between the 1880s and 1930s.  Finally, between 1967-78 a company, NORPAC, was formed to mine zinc, lead and copper from Tui which was sent to Japan for processing.  The ore was so heavy that the trucks leaving the mine looked empty, even as their axels strained under the weight of the load.  Mining stopped, and NORPAC went bankrupt, in 1978 when it was found that the Japanese workers were getting ill from the high mercury content in the Tui metals and the market disappeared.  More than half of the mined ore remained on site, with nowhere to go.  In those days, before the RMA required mining companies to clean up after themselves, NORPAC was able to take only the most cursory swipe at dealing with the toxic ore, tailings, mines and processing sites before literally disappearing from existence.

Now Tui Mine is acknowledged as the most toxic site in New Zealand, and a disaster of monumental scale that could occur with only a small seismic event or even particularly bad storm.  Millions of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars are being spent to try and stop the surge of heavy metals that fills the streams every time heavy rain or careless visitors disturbs the site. And, more dramatically to prevent the potential of 90,000 tonnes of toxic tailings breaking through the crumbling dam left by NORPAC and sliding down the hillside onto the town below.  The town's water supply was contaminated with heavy metals at up to 150 times safe levels of cadmium and lead from at least 1968-1979 and possibly intermittently since then.

It must be a huge relief to the residents of Te Aroha, and the local iwi with kaitiakitangi over the mountain to know that the Tui Mine debacle is finally being dealt with.  I'm not quite sure yet exactly how my work will interpret these issues and the environment but I know that the red of Cinnabar, the toxic ore that made Japanese workers so sick, will feature.

Some of the toxic ore from Tui Mine, Cinnabar, or Mercury Sulphide. The distinctive red colour stains the water flowing from and past the mine site, and no plant life has grown anywhere near the mine in the 30 years since it closed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The only piece of truth in this article is that it will be a huge relief to the residents of TeAroha that the mess will be cleaned up. Information that Japanese workers became ill from the concentrate from this mine is just fantasy, and if it was true I would also be a very sick person as I worked at that mine for many years. The mineral waters of this Mountain were sought after for health purposes and they contain the same minerals that you are referring to.