The first coal mine was opened in 1849, leading the way for many more large-scale coalfields to be discovered. As of 2017, New Zealand had 18 producing coal mines which were all open cast operations. The country uses coal for fueling industrial processes, particularly in the South Island where no online gas system exists. Important products such as cement, steel and wool rely on the coal that is extracted domestically.
New Zealand’s past volcanic activity has contributed to its unique geology and reserves of ironsand – a type of sand with large concentrations of iron. Black ironsand is found primarily on the west coast of the North Island; as such, commercial mines mainly operate in this region. Iron sand is used for the manufacture of steel; demand for carbon steel in the country is met equally by both the domestic manufacture of the product and import of internationally sourced steel.
Gold and silver mining in New Zealand are small segments of the mining industry. The gold production volume of the Macraes Mine, the most productive gold mine in the country, amounted to just under five thousand kilograms in 2017. The Martha Mine, located in Waihi, produces the largest amount of silver in New Zealand and was once one of the most important silver mines in the world.
Although mining in the country is an important economic sector, the processes involved can lead to harmful environmental impacts. Chemical contamination on land and in water, sediments in waterways and loss of riparian vegetation are all potential negative impacts directly linked to mining. New Zealanders are particularly concerned about pollution of lakes and rivers in the country. Recently, mining and the opening of new mines have been contentious topics within the country. On the one hand, many rely on mining for employment and economic growth. On the other hand, environmental groups are concerned with minimizing the impacts of mining and mine site rehabilitation. The conflict may be dissipated with the changing energy landscape as well as the limited supply of coal, with more industries turning to reliable renewable sources of energy to avoid ‘carbon taxes’ and to ensure energy resilience in the future.