Huntly jobs at risk as Solid Energy falters

VERNON SMALL AND HARRY PEARL
Last updated 05:00 22/02/2013

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Taxpayers face bailing out state-owned coal miner Solid Energy, which is on the brink of failure putting 1200 jobs in jeopardy.

Finance Minister Bill English cannot say if the company, once a jewel in the crown of the Government's asset sales programme, is now worth anything.

In a shock announcement Mr English and State-Owned Enterprises Tony Ryall said the company was in distress and in discussions with its banks.

But they would not let it fail.

"We are not going to let it go into receivership," Mr English said.

Staff now face two or three months of "unavoidable uncertainty" before they learn their fate.

Meanwhile, employees and suppliers will be paid.

Problems first came to light when the company was put under the microscope by officials preparing it for partial sale.

But Mr English said he had no reason to think ministers had been deliberately misled.

Chairman Mark Ford was not available to comment, but in a statement said the situation had continued to deteriorate despite measures to cut costs and restructure last year.

That saw 450 staff, a quarter of its workforce, lose their jobs. The Spring Creek Mine on the West Coast was mothballed and Huntly East was scaled back

Mr Ford said there had been a big fall in coal prices since 2011. The company was carrying substantial debt and the half-year result would be a significant loss.

Debt has blown out from $300m in June to $389m.

Mr Ford, who took over the chairmanship in November, said Solid Energy was now talking to its bankers and Treasury about the debt and equity support needed.

Mr English said the best advice was that there was a viable core business in the company.

"Who contributes to its recovery is a matter that will be discussed over the next month or so between the company, the banks and Treasury."

He could not rule out a Government bailout and would not rule out its value, put at $2.8 billion by Solid Energy and $1.55b by the Government's advisers in 2011, now being zero.

The Government replaced most of the board in November and long-serving chief executive Don Elder resigned his $1.1m job two weeks ago.

Asked if Dr Elder received a golden handshake, Mr English said he had been paid his contractual entitlements but referred queries to the company.

A spokeswoman said providing specific details would be a breach of a confidentiality deal agreed with Dr Elder and would also breach the obligation to protect his privacy.

But the company has disclosed performance-related bonuses of more than $23.5m over the past two years to 950 employees.

Dr Elder's voice mail message yesterday said he was out of cellphone range until February 20 but he did not return calls.

In recent weeks Solid Energy has sold its bio-energy business to management and put 920 hectares of Southland farmland on the block.

Labour's state-owned enterprises spokesman Clayton Cosgrove said National's "epic mismanagement" had turned it from an export award-winning company into a basket-case.

"Solid Energy appears on the verge of collapse. This must be the first time any Government has overseen such a massive failure in a state owned asset. ... The big loser? Yet again, the taxpayer.

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Mr English said one state owned company, map-maker Terralink, had been put in receivership in 2001.

Solid Energy bought Pike River Coal last year, after that company went into receivership after the explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010.

Solid Energy itself was last bailed out in 1999.

HUNTLY ANXIOUS

Possible restructuring at Solid Energy was met with anxiety from Waikato union and council members last night.

The state-owned coalminer cut 63 jobs from its Huntly mine in November last year, and talk of further restructuring has left miners fearful more jobs will be shed at the company's Huntly East and Rotowaro operations.

"All the workers at the mine are worried," Huntley East miner and union convenor Bryan Lynch said last night.

"We knew there was problems with the mine and problems with the company, but a lot of it is just coming out now about how far in debt they really were."

Waikato District Mayor Allan Sanson said the Huntly East mine and the Rotowaro opencast mine were both significant employers for the area.

"There would be an enormous impact on the mining families in Huntly. As you can appreciate not all of them live in Huntly, but if they don't live in Huntly they live in surrounding areas."

Solid Energy reduced the Huntly mine's staff from 234 positions to 171 last year, due to the cancellation of a major ventilation project at the mine and the halting of all major underground development.

News of the company's $389 million debt, and discussions with Treasury and banks about equity and debt support, has resurrected old fears among workers.

And Mr Sanson said any restructuring that affected Huntly operations would also impact on companies that support mining in the area.

"It does have a trickle down affect to other parts of the community."

Although Mr Sanson said he feared for anybody who could lose their job, he was optimistic for the energy company's Huntly operations.

"Solid Energy sits on huge amounts of coal resources . . . It sounds like a lot of money, but in the scheme of things it's not actually that much money, [Solid Energy] can work its way through it."

- Waikato Times

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