Exploratory test drilling for scheelite in Whakaari

A mining company has been given permission to carry out exploratory drilling for tungsten and gold in a conservation area near Glenorchy.

New Zealand Tungsten Mining Ltd has been granted a land use consent for the drilling in a 10ha site in the Whakaari Conservation Area known as the Judah Lode, the site of a former state scheelite mine.

The consent, granted by the Queenstown Lakes District Council on a non-notified basis in December, allows the company to drill 28 holes using a rig that must be carried in by helicopter.

The 9400ha conservation area is popular with walkers, trampers and hunters, and has several Department of Conservation (Doc) huts and a network of old mining roads and tracks.

Company shareholder and director Gary Gray, of Auckland, told the Otago Daily Times he expected drilling to start in two months.

The company had an access arrangement with Doc that was ''pretty stringent and strict''.

''Everywhere we're drilling is on old mine access roads and tracks that were actually put in to drill holes from in the first instance.''

He had no doubt commercially viable quantities of tungsten and gold were present at the site, and the biggest obstacle was access.

The council's report on the consent, written by consultant planner Rosalind Devlin, said drilling operations were ''not an activity normally anticipated by the public in a conservation area''.

''The operations may generate varying reactions from recreationists in regard to visual amenity of the area arising from the presence of a drill rig and the sound generated by drilling operations.''

The area had been mined as recently as the 1980s, and therefore was not regarded as historic.

The consent provided for three helicopter landing sites, buildings for a camp site, clearance of native vegetation to set up drilling sites, and earthworks.

All equipment and workers would be transported to and from the site by helicopter.

The drill holes, of between 10 metres and 250m in depth, would be backfilled.

Adverse effects on landscape, nature conservation values and water quality were considered to be less than minor, as were adverse affects from the camp site and helicopter activity.

Adverse effects from clearance of native vegetation, mainly tussock grassland, would be no more than minor.

Conditions included the use of only hand tools to clear native vegetation, and rehabilitating disturbed areas to their pre-existing state.

Woody vegetation and cushionfield communities would be avoided.

''The proposed level of clearance will be in an area that is not visible from many public places, and retains large areas of indigenous vegetation habitat.''

Mr Gray said the company had been operating in the Glenorchy area for the past 15 years, including before the Whakaari Conservation Area was formed in 2007.

It had another exploration permit for an area at the northern end of Mt Alfred, and a prospecting permit on the Richardson range east of Glenorchy. It has a 2021-expired government-issued mineral exploration permit for Judah Lode site.

He made submissions on the council's proposed district plan and was hopeful it would be adopted with a more permissive approach to small-scale mining.

The company aimed to reopen the old scheelite mines and carry out small-scale underground mining. Modern mining was ''safer, cleaner and more efficient''. A well-planned operation would remove, avoid or minimise environmental effects.

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