'Extremely relieved': Financial strife likely to save fossil site

Foulden Marr, near Middlemarch. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Foulden Marr, near Middlemarch. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON

The future of fossil-laden Foulden Maar near Middlemarch for science appears almost certainly assured, after Malaysian-controlled Australian company Plaman Resources was formally placed in receivership today.

Plaman's two shareholders, based in Malaysia and the Isle of Man in the UK, had voluntarily placed Plaman in both receivership and liquidation; the former to initially take precedence.

Plaman's only known debt was $US20 million ($30.6 million) to investment bank Goldman Sachs, which lent it the money on a two-year term, starting in May last year.

Plaman's New Zealand general manager declined to comment, while the Sydney-based company directors George Manolas and Panayiotis Plakidis have gone to ground in recent weeks, their representative not responding to interview requests.

If Plaman's application to the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) to buy the adjoining Foulden Hill farm was discontinued, and the receivers go ahead to sell the existing, smaller mine site; bought for about $5.3 million in 2015, the pathway could be cleared for saving the fossils.

Combined heritage, science and tourism ventures have been mooted in recent weeks.

The OIO was contacted and said given Plaman's changed circumstances, its application to buy the adjoining Foulden Hill farm, next to the mine on Moonlight Road, would be put "on hold''.

However, the OIO noted Plaman's "financial position'' was relevant to the application assessment; and third party submissions were still being accepted on the proposal.

A Save Foulden Maar petition today topped 10,000 signatures.

The turning point was revelations in April from a confidential Goldman Sachs investment report, leaked to the Otago Daily Times, which revealed some disdain by Goldman Sachs for the local community, but also plans to ditch shareholder Malaysian company Iris Corporation, which has been linked to palm oil production in the past.

Once the extent of the fossils was known publicly, the science community at the University of Otago got behind calls to review the mining proposal, while the Dunedin City Council reversed its stance and called for its preservation.

One of the leading voices against the mining plan University of Otago geologist professor Daphne Lee was elated when she heard the news.

"I'm extremely relieved because it has given me a lot of sleepless nights.''

"This is taken me by surprise, well and truly, I thought with all the effort that had gone in that they would fight it to the bitter end.''

This was a chance to secure the land in public ownership, Prof Lee said.

"This has alerted a lot of people to this so maybe the outcome in the end will actually be a good one."

simon.hartley@odt.co.nz

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