Friday, February 10, 2012

Fired up about Stockton Mine and Denniston Plateau

Stockton Mine (photo from Solid Energy)
I spend a lot of time looking at pictures of open cast mines (photographs, diagrams and maps) trying to make sense of the distorted landscapes; trying to understand what is up or down, to grasp the massive scale and identify different activities and elements.  I spend a lot of time trying to think how to respond to, interpret or represent open cast mining in my work.  I have mostly been frustrated and disappointed with my attempts to bridge the gap between my ideas and what my hands can produce.

It does seem as though my lack of first hand experience is an impediment, and that in this area at least, my imagination alone is inadequate for the task I set it. I have visited one open cast bauxite mine, at Weipa in Queensland Australia, but that was before I knew to look for what I would now.  That visit was certainly seminal in making mining such a priority for me, but the tour bus had filthy, heavily scratched windows, and my memory (and few photographs) are similarly hazy.

My best photo of Weipa's bauxite mine, taken through scratched and dirty bus windows. Bauxite sits on top of the earth at Weipa, they just scrape off 10m or so and then 'landscape' the much lower ground behind them.

Last night I went along to a talk about plans to mine Denniston Plateau in the South Island of New Zealand.  Over recent months I have read all I can, focused in on Google Earth from every angle, sought out every image of  Denniston and its sister Stockton Plateau where open cast mining has been underway for many years. My poor brain has felt as dull and dim as the Weipa bus windows in trying to visualise Denniston and Stockton.  But listening to Kevin Hackwell of Forest and Bird speak, while seeing his beautiful slides projected large and clear, was like knocking that opaque window out of the frame and seeing through clear air at last.

Finally, I can make sense of the geology of the Plateaus- tipped and cracked into different angles as they are, they still share the relatively shallow but very hard sandstone cap on top of high grade coal.  I could see with my own eyes the 80m tip of Mt Augustus being bulldozed into rubble and tipped down into the fertile, wild valley below. I could see the boundaries of the conservation land that includes the Plateaus.

I was completely engaged through the early part of the presentation, utterly entranced by the unusual ecosystem that clings to the exposed rocky top of the plateaus; the snails, the birds, the crayfish all intriguing.  Then the first slide showing Stockton's open cast operation flashed up and I felt a thrill through my body that seemed at odds with the groans of dismay uttered by the grey-haired greenies that filled the audience around me.    For me though, seeing the mining so clearly, and so well contextualised, was utterly compelling, fascinating and exciting as well as horrifying.  Finally I could make sense of the light and shadow, the shades of rock, the textures of each layer as the overburden is scraped away to reveal the thick rich black seam below.

Kevin had extraordinary stories to flesh out the images before us. The tenuous consent to mine nearby Happy Valley was granted at the last minute based on Solid Energy's spontaneous offer to roll up the wetlands and store them for a few years, then reinstate once all the coal had been removed(!). A case has been taken by investors in the Australian Stock Exchange against Bathurst for misinformation in their prospectus for mining Denniston.  Bizarre and possibly futile efforts to relocate the unique carnivorous snail from Mt Augustus before it was decapitated.  The mysterious jewel-like flatworm, unknown to science, found by contractors during the snail removal, whose photograph has been suppressed by Solid Energy.  Our new government reversing its promise to publicly notify the access agreement that allows Bathurst to mine on Conservation land, just two days after last years election.

Biking home after the talk, under the moon rising golden and swollen in a halo of little clouds, my mind was full of the stories and images of Denniston and Stockton. What had been a nagging ache of desire to visit there was simultaneously sated and inflamed.  I am full of ideas and eager to begin making confident at last that I know what to do, but it also seems even more urgent to find a way to fund a field trip to see for myself.  The urgency is not just to feed my creative hunger, but also because this year is the turning point for Denniston. Consent has been granted, but will be appealed to the Environment Court (and possibly beyond) this winter. If the appeals lose all the way, mining could begin on Denniston next summer.  It is a crucial time for public activism and thus raising public awareness. If my planned textile works can help raise public awareness to positive effect, then I want them not to be too late.


Tara said...

Thanks Meliors, enjoyed the post :-)

Carol said...

Gosh, Meliors, your writing in itself is a vivid tool for conservation. Between what you say and your wonderful creations, you bring the whole problem to light. Between oil spills and mining, you have a lot to say, and do it brilliantly.