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Land around Foulden Maar where the proposed mining would take place (Image: Kimberley Collins, Creative Commons)
Land around Foulden Maar where the proposed mining would take place (Image: Kimberley Collins, Creative Commons)

The BulletinMay 16, 2019

The Bulletin: Quiet mining battle erupts into the headlines

Land around Foulden Maar where the proposed mining would take place (Image: Kimberley Collins, Creative Commons)
Land around Foulden Maar where the proposed mining would take place (Image: Kimberley Collins, Creative Commons)

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Quiet fight over Central Otago mine roars into the headlines, Christchurch call summit gets agreement signed, and allegations made of widespread Uni cheating.

This story has been building for a long time, but coverage has stepped up significantly in the past month, so it’s worth covering in detail. Residents of the small, central Otago town of Middlemarch are in a battle with a mining giant, over a site of incredible geological and paleontological significance. Foulden Maar is packed with fossils, but it also has hundreds of tonnes worth of diatomite, which can be used as an animal feed supplement. Mining company Plaman Global wants to get at that diatomite, and set up an operation that will last for about 27 years.

The issue re-emerged last month, with a report conducted by PWC leaked to the Otago Daily TimesIt indicated there had been significant activity going on behind the scenes, with deals being struck and preparations to start a mining operation that would run for decades. A processing plant was earmarked for nearby Milton, and former Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove had been enlisted as a “government relations adviser” (in English, that means lobbyist.) As for the public, there was a telling quote taken out of the report: “Management does not expect any significant social or community issues.”

Well, that’s not really how it has happened at all. The story has now rather got away from Plaman Global, and is now being framed by some commentators as a David vs Goliath sort of tale. The residents objections are based on two major threads. First of all, the fossil record preserved at the site really is astonishing – the ODT reports it also offers a 120,000 year record of climate fluctuations, which given the current state of the environment is pretty important scientific information to have. The Geoscience Society of NZ released a furious call to action on those grounds yesterday, calling it “New Zealand’s most important terrestrial fossil site.”

As well as that, trucks would likely run 24 hours a day, rumbling up a whole lot of mining dust in the process. There are alternative plans which involve rail instead. An online petition against the mine (which in fairness, can be signed by anyone) has attracted thousands of signatures in a few days.

The battle has also become political, with former PM Helen Clark weighing in against the mine. The NZ Herald reports that puts her at odds with Labour MP Clare Curran, who actively supports it going ahead. Ms Clark says the site should instead be given protected status, akin to a similar place in Germany which is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. And on Newsroom this morning, Farah Hancock reported that Dunedin mayor Dave Cull is starting to raise concerns as well – that’s significant because Dunedin City Council had previously put forward a letter of support.

The final deal is not yet done, and still requires sign-off from the Overseas Investment Office. And that word investment shouldn’t be forgotten here either – the plans would create some economic benefits and around 100 jobs over 27 years for the region. As of this morning, the ODT reports Plaman has been emailing Clare Curran, defending their plans against accusations the mine will be low value, or that their operations would result in the complete destruction of the fossil record.

But requiring OIO sign-off puts the ball in the court of minister Eugenie Sage, a Green MP who recently made waves with colleagues over turning down an unrelated application from a different mining company. She’s not commenting publicly, but one thing is for sure – when the decision does come out, whatever happens it won’t be received quietly.

In advance of the Christchurch call summit, Facebook announced some token changes to their live-streaming format. The NZ Herald reports users who have broken certain rules will face some restrictions, and they’ll also be putting $7.5 million towards research into image and video analysis technology. Blocked users also won’t be able to give Facebook money through the purchase of ads. PM Jacinda Ardern welcomed the move as a nice start.

It was followed up by 17 countries and various technology companies signing on to the Christchurch call. As Stuff reported overnight, a major plank of the Call is that social media companies will review their recommendation algorithms, to reduce the likelihood that users end up being directed towards extremist content. Facebook, Twitter and Google (owners of Youtube) all signed on to the non-binding pledge.

A detail out of this story on Radio NZ offers a clue as to whether or not this agreement will have any teeth – pressure from a range of major investment funds including the NZ Super Fund will be used to hold tech companies to account. In related news about the power of Facebook, Stuff reports government departments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars for advertising on the platform over the past five years.

Allegations have been made of widespread cheating among international students at NZ universities, reports One News. Chinese students have alleged that up to half of international students from the country buy essays from ghostwriters. The allegations haven’t been proven, and universities say they have a range of measures in place to prevent cheating. And a note on it all – the story said ghostwriters were getting paid 20c a word, which… well, let’s just say I got okay marks at uni and my email address is easy to find.

MSD has been accused of “systematically” misusing their powers to pursue beneficiaries suspected of fraud, reports Radio NZ. Privacy commissioner John Edwards says investigators have been unjustifiably intrusive in their practice of going to third parties for information, because it means they can get at all sorts of sensitive information about people without their knowledge. Among the examples he listed: MSD obtained an intimate image of a beneficiary from a telecommunications company and then tried to use it as evidence against the beneficiary.

No progress whatsoever has been made on nitrates ending up in Canterbury’s water, an alarming new reports covered by Stuff has found. Nitrate levels have improved at only 11 sites, out of more than 300 being monitored. 7% of wells in the area have nitrate levels above the maximum allowed – above that level it becomes dangerous to human health.

An update to yesterday’s news about the fees free policy for tertiary study: Victoria University Students Association president Tamatha Paul went on Morning Report to warn the government that there would be a heavy backlash from students if the promise wasn’t delivered in full and on time. She says she’s heard first hand from plenty of students who are at university now because of the policy, and knows some people chose to vote Labour because of it. Remember the name Tamatha Paul, by the way – she’s 22 years old and recently announced she’s running for the Lambton Ward on Wellington Council.

Major restructuring looks likely in the Newshub division of Mediaworks. Now I’m not going to link to it, but one prominent media commentator was quoted as saying the problem was that the company’s TV news never breaks any stories. To which I would say clearly, this commentator hasn’t been paying the slightest bit of attention, and they’ve missed out on a lot of good journalism as a result. My thoughts are with all of the Newshub staff whose jobs are affected.

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Multi-level marketing company Arbonne’s website features stock images of successful sales people (Photo: Arbonne)

Right now on The Spinoff: Gabrielle Baker writes about diversity statistics which show how overwhelmingly white the public service is. Former MP Chester Borrows writes about what the latest survey of victims of crime shows about the changes that are needed. Holly Bagge writes about the two sides of Arbonne, a company that many see as rather scammy, but others say is their path to economic freedom. And Alec Redvers-Hill writes an experimental piece about the Ockham awards, featuring the texts Spinoff boss Duncan Greive bombarded him with throughout the night.

For today’s feature, we’re going to look to the USA, where extreme new anti-abortion laws have just been passed in a few increasingly theocratic states. As The Cut reports, the near-total ban on abortions in Alabama is unlikely to be enforceable in and of itself. But in being challenged, they could end up triggering a fresh look at the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision, which is basically the foundation on which abortion rights in the USA are based. Here’s an excerpt from an interview on the New Yorker, in which reporter Linda Greenhouse outlines how that might end up happening.

I think one template we might take for that is a case that has absolutely nothing to do with abortion. It’s a decision called Janus [v. AFSCME], in the area of labor law, that the Supreme Court issued, last June. This is a case in which the Court overturned a forty-year-old precedent by a vote of 5–4. The precedent had said that a public employee who doesn’t want to join the public-employee union doesn’t have to join the union, but they can be required by state law to pay that portion of the union dues that goes to the union’s bargaining and representation function because that benefits everybody in the workplace. And so it was deemed a fair share that they don’t have to subsidize the union’s political activities, but they have to pay for those services from which they benefit.

The Supreme Court overturned this precedent. And it did it in such a way that the ultimate decision, in June, was inevitable, and totally not surprising. The Court had issued a series of decisions over six years leading up to this where, case by case, they whittled away the old precedent. They cast doubt on it. They spoke about it in very snarky terms over dissents from people like Justice [Elena] Kagan, who knew what was afoot, but she couldn’t stop it.

I’ve looked at that as a template for what might happen to Roe. They could uphold this obstruction, and they could uphold that obstruction, and they could send all these signals. And it would take a number of years—not a huge number of years, maybe. And so, if Roe finally falls, it’ll fall with a little push of a pinkie, rather than a frontal assault, because there won’t be much left of it.

Former cricketer Peter Fulton has been appointed Black Caps batting coach, and not everyone is exactly thrilled about it. Radio NZ’s Hamish Bidwell has steamed in off a long run, saying there appears to be an increasing trend of ‘jobs for the boys’ around NZ Cricket. Fulton hasn’t really done all that much coaching since retirement, but captained Canterbury under the coaching of new Black Caps head coach Gary Stead. Note – the piece was written when the appointment of Fulton was widely rumoured, but as yet unconfirmed.

From our partners: A two-tier system of energy use is developing, with those on high incomes much more able to reduce their bills than households on lower incomes. Vector’s Chief Risk and Sustainability Officer Kate Beddoe outlines what the company plans to do about that.

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