Thursday, June 28, 2012

Denniston Moss

Denniston lichens and mosses
The day after our tour of Stockton Mine, Robin and I visited the next plateau south: Denniston. The rich seams of Denniston coal were extensively and famously pit-mined for nearly a century. Denniston's mining history has been romantically immortalised in a couple of popular novels which in turn support some excellent visitor resources on the Plateau.

Top of the Incline (once touted as the 8th wonder of the world!) at Denniston
I like looking at bits of rusty old mining kit as much as the next girl but I really wanted to get a feel for the natural landscape that is (probably) soon going to be open cast mined like Stockton.  The landscape is very similar to what Stockton would have been like before Solid Energy started blasting the surface away. I also really wanted to meet one of the famous snails. 

Looking South from Stockton onto Denniston Plateau

The Arctic has polar bears. The Sumatran rainforest has orangutans.  Every endangered ecosystem needs at least one charismatic megafauna to rally support for habitat conservation. The Buller coal plateau (which includes Stockton and Denniston Plateaux) is an endangered ecosystem so harsh that the most charismatic megafauna it can offer is a giant carnivorous land snail that sucks up live worms like spaghetti.  Unfortunately, as defenders of the plateau have found, snails have a repuation that make most people consider them a slightly ludicrous animal to bother saving.  It's difficult, even for a lifelong greenie like myself, to not secretly snigger just a little about saving snails.

Powelliphanta patrickensis (photo from Forest and Bird)

Of course its not just unique and remarkable snails that are at risk, but an entire unique and remarkable ecosystem (of which snails are a near-top-level predator, much like the polar bear in the Arctic, but infinitely less cuddly-looking). Denniston Plateau's environment is based on a layer of concrete-like sandstone with almost no soil; 6m p/a rainfall with no drainage, at a high altitude between mountains and sea, blasted almost year round with icy Southern winds. 

Typical Denniston landscape- exposed rock with a few short tough plants clinging to tiny nooks and hollows

The tallest trees grow to about knee height in most places.  Most of the animal life is invertebrate, with a few rare birds and lizards who survive there because it is too harsh an environment for the kind of pests that have demolished most of the rest of NZ's native animals. 

My favourite Denniston plant

I didn't see any snails. Or other insects, though I turned over a few rocks looking. No birds, no lizards, nothing but the most enchanting clumps of moss and lichen. We did meet lots of mining vehicles thundering along the narrow twisty gravel roads to and on the Plateau. Bathurst (the company granted consent to open cut on Denniston Plateau) is already open cut mining out the back at Cascade Mine, accessed across Denniston.  

Reminds me of the saucer gardens I used to make when I was a child
This environment is so fragile, so tenuously maintained on the hard sandstone cap that lies above the coal, that I just can't see how Bathurst  can possibly pretend they will be able to restore it after mining.  Like Solid Energy's efforts at Stockton Mine, they may go to a great deal of trouble to make sure the landscape looks green and tidy, (which is admittedly an improvement on pre-RMA mining companies leaving a big toxic mess as at Tui). I mean, look at these pictures.  The ecosystem that is there now is unique to the sandstone cap and can't be replicated on top of blasted rubble with manufactured soil, grass seed and native plantings.  It may very well be a parkland afterwards, but it won't be much like it is now.

Charismatic microflora.  Could a Save the Moss campaign work? It is kind of cuddly looking. 

Coal mining in the bad old days was difficult, dirty and dangerous. Miners died underground in explosions, fires, collapses and gassy pockets. They died overground in machinery failures. If they survived the immediate dangers many still died young of black lung from inhaling coal dust.

Denniston Miners (photos from the interpretive boards on site)

Today coal mining continues to be difficult, dirty and dangerous.  I'm still stitching my memorials to the men who died at Pike River few miles from Denniston not even two years ago.

New Zealand Coal Mining Disasters remembered at Denniston

An open cut mine in a regulated industry is undoubtably less dangerous for workers who spend most of their days inside the comfortable cabs of heavy machinery. But the dangers to the environment from coal mining are both localised and global, immediate and long term. Blasting a landscape, filling the air with dust and acidifying streams are bad enough but burning coal into greenhouse gases is inherently dirty. Clean coal is a dirty lie.  The only clean coal is in the hole.

The difficulty is overcoming the greed of coal mining directors and shareholders who deny that climate change is their problem (yet Colorado burns up as I write this).  The difficulty lies in changing a whole global economic system entirely based on digging up sequestered carbon and releasing it into the atmosphere.

"As new processes evolve, future generations might wonder why their ancestors wastefully burnt so much of this rare and precious fossil fuel."


henrietteo said...

Hi, Mellior, wonderful inspiring pictures, great text. Sonds like an interesting trip!
Have you read Tawny O'Dells novels? Great writer. Her stories are from the coal district in Pensylvania, outside of Pittsburgh. One is Called Sister mine.

Harvey Molloy said...

A wonderful blog post. Great photos. I just want to go there.

Anonymous said...

I would have liked to see some photos of revegetated areas?

Bronwyn Lloyd said...

Hi Meliors,
have you read the poetry of poet and environmentalist, the late Rev. Leicester Kyle, one of the people responsible for saving the dear snails! He's written some marvellous poetry about the Buller Plateau (even the snail iteslf!). Jack has compiled much of his poetry on this blog:

All the best,