Anxious wait for Coast miners

GEORGINA STYLIANOU AND NICOLE MATHEWSON
Last updated 10:38 24/09/2012

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Almost 300 Spring Creek mine workers face an anxious wait to learn this afternoon whether the mine will close and their jobs will be axed.

Operations at the underground West Coast coalmine were suspended almost four weeks ago, pending a review of its viability after international coal prices plummeted.

Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder will announce the mine's future at a meeting with all employees at 4pm today in nearby Dunollie, near Greymouth.

New chairman Mark Ford will announce details of a restructuring of the state-owned enterprise's entire business at 4.30pm today in Christchurch.

A swath of redundancies was announced at the state-owned enterprise's Huntly East Mine in Waikato and its Christchurch head office almost a month ago.

Last week, Elder said 200 to 250 jobs would be cut in the restructuring, in addition to any redundancies at Spring Creek.

The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union's West Coast organiser, Garth Elliott, said the company told him about the meeting this morning, which came as a surprise.

Mine management told the union last week a decision on the mine was unlikely till the middle of this week and would consult staff before any announcement, he said.

All employees, who had been on leave on full pay since the mine operation was suspended, were invited today to attend this afternoon's meeting.

Elliott said Spring Creek employed about 250 workers and management, along with 40 or more contractors.

Their mood today was grim and most believed the mine would be put into ''care and maintenance'', meaning it was effectively mothballed until coal prices improved, he said.

''I think everyone has tried to be positive about the situation but it's very hard to be positive about it,'' he said.

''The general feeling is it will be put on care and maintenance.''

Elder said last week that if the company decided to put the mine on care and maintenance, most workers would be made redundant, which would cost the company about $10 million.

''It isn't a step a company takes lightly.''

Only about 20 workers would be retained to maintain mine safety, such as ventilation and to prevent flooding, he said.

Once it had announced its decision on the mine's future, Elder said, the company would spend several weeks consulting with staff and would take about six weeks to mothball the mine.

Fears about the mine's closure and its impact on the township prompted an outcry in Greymouth, where about 1000 people marched in protest three weeks ago.

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A contingent of 12 Spring Creek workers and union representatives today began their trip to Wellington, where they planned to lobby Parliament tomorrow as a last-ditch effort to save the mine.

''It might end up being a protest, depending on what happens today,'' Elliott said.

Ford will host a media briefing at 4.30pm on the whole company's future.

''The topic is the restructuring of Solid Energy's business, including its mining operations, in response to the current market conditions,'' he said.

The company's board met last Friday to discuss an independent report on the mine and a proposal by staff and union members on ways to keep it open.

Elder has said Spring Creek's future was ''not looking promising'' because of low international coal prices.

It had struggled for most of its 12 years in operation and had been in development phase all year.

He said the Government had asked the company to leave ''no stone unturned'' in assessing options for its survival.

''Everybody would love to keep the mine open,'' he said.

Miners heading to Parliament

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn says he will travel to Wellington tomorrow where miners from Spring Creek and Huntly East will plead with the Government to save their mines.

Kokshoorn said he would meet with State-owned Enterprises Minister Tony Ryall to "try to make him see" that closing the mine was "not a good idea".

The loss of the mine would be "enormous" for Greymouth.

"We know the price of coal has gone down but that will change . . . but these workers have been loyal and there is still coal that hasn't been developed so it just doesn't make sense," he said.

West Coast MP Damien O'Connor told the Sunday Star-Times that, after examining a Solid Energy strategic document dated August 29, it seemed evident the miner planned to scale down operations in a bid to boost its balance sheet, making potential share sales more attractive to investors.

"The benefit from an asset-sales perspective is to leave as much coal in the ground as you can and reduce the costs on top of the ground. That means getting rid of as many jobs and leaving the coal there," he said.

"That will crucify the Greymouth community just so the Government can get a better deal from its asset-sales programme. That, in my view, is outrageous."

Yesterday, the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union said it had hoped to present the Government with a plan devised by management and workers to keep the mines open.

Spring Creek miner and union delegate Trevor Bolderson said the plan showed the West Coast mine was viable, but the Government would need to provide some financial support to get the mine through the next couple of years.

The plan was not just about saving jobs, it was about "providing a future for Greymouth", he said.

"We're hoping to make them see that the economic and human cost of closing Spring Creek would be unconscionable.”

Huntly East miner and union delegate Brian Lynch said the long-term damage to his community could be just as great if the Government did not step up.

"Solid Energy's proposal to cancel the Huntly East ventilation project is a very risky and short-term cost-saving strategy that could force the mine to stop production within two years,'' he said.

"If Huntly East closes, the community will suffer a body blow, and the downstream effects on the Glenbrook steel mill could be even greater. We'll be encouraging the Government to see the bigger picture."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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