West Coast miners fear their way of life is under threat

IAIN MCGREGOR/Stuff
Mining is tedious, with long days and early starts in a hostile environment - but it's a passion and a way of life for some West Coasters.

About 1550 West Coasters work in mining or related industries, but all those jobs could be gone within 10 years. Joanne Carroll talks to miners who say they are sick of apologising for what they do and are working hard to restore the land.

When born and bred West Coaster Peter Watson was a child, he pretended he was a miner with toy trucks in the fire ashes. It's all he's wanted to do. 

He's now the pit boss at Birchfield coal mine in Reefton. 

Neil 'Irish' Mohan makes his way across the flooded pit after turning on a water pump.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Neil 'Irish' Mohan makes his way across the flooded pit after turning on a water pump.

"It's how the Coast was founded, coal and gold. To me it's just always been here, it's a way of life and a way of making a living," he said. 

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He said "the days of digging a hole and leaving it is gone".

"Looking after the environment is a big part of mining. A lot of miners take pride in what they leave behind. It's also for future generations, we replace what we've taken out. It's part of being a coaster is the outdoors and we don't want to see bare land."

Steve Murray from Reefton waits for the work bus just after 6am.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Steve Murray from Reefton waits for the work bus just after 6am.

Mining is tedious with long days and early starts in a hostile environment with, at times, torrential weather. 

But it's a passion and a way of life for West Coast miners, who believe a proposed ban on new mines on conservation land would kill their region. 

West Coasters have rallied in large numbers to protest against the proposed ban on new mines on DOC land will likely have a major impact on the West Coast, where DOC administers about 84 per cent of the land. Of the 23,500 square kilometres total land on the West Coast, only 15sqkm are mined. 

According to industry group Minerals West Coast, 1550 people are employed both directly and indirectly through mining. Without further access to DOC land, all those jobs would be gone within 10 years, it says. 

Steve Murray drives coal trucks in the Birchfield coalmine, which looks like a large black quarry 15 minutes from Reefton. He gets up while it's still dark to cart coal for 10 hours a day, but wouldn't have it any other way. 

Steve Murray arriving in the early morning at the Birchfield mine.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Steve Murray arriving in the early morning at the Birchfield mine.

"My great grandfather owned mines in Mataura. I've been burning diesel all my life. I started goldmining and then went into coal. I thought coal was going to be good but it's being shut down," he says. 

"If they said 'that's it, the gate's shut', I wouldn't know what to do."

He loves his job, but says it's tedious, with long hours that take a toll on his personal life.

Nowadays coal mining is not the dirty industry it once was, he says. It's also heavily high-tech. Sitting in an air-conditioned truck cab carting coal even for 10 hours a day is a world away from the hard yakka his ancestors did in the underground mines. So too are the environmental practices in today's mining, as prescribed by the Resource Management Act. 

"The days of digging a hole and leaving it are gone," one miner says.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
"The days of digging a hole and leaving it are gone," one miner says.

He said he is a conservationist and cares about the environment. 

"When we were mining in Oceana [gold mine in Reefton] I used to see little native bats not any bigger than the palm of your hand. They lived in the bush. We were disturbing their habitat but we weren't killing them. They were still there. I would sit and watch them gorging themselves on the insects we were offering with the lights on for 10 hours a night," he recalls. 

​"When you drive up and down the Coast can you see a mine? No. So what's the problem? Is it an eyesore?," he said.

Morning briefing at the mine.
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Morning briefing at the mine.

Mine owner Allan Birchfield said the prime minister's speech from the throne last year that all new mines would be banned on conservation land was a "a bolt out of the blue".

The Birchfield family's ancestors all came out from Scotland, Ireland and England and settled on the Coast to work in the coal mines and timber mills.

The coal mining company was started by Max and Betty Birchfield in Dunollie in 1975. Now it's being run by their four children, and, along with the family's three gold mines, employs more than 100 people including Max and Betty's grandchildren. 

Coal in the processing area at Birchfield mine.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Coal in the processing area at Birchfield mine.

Birchfield said there was no viable alternative to coal yet. 

"The Greens tell us that we shouldn't be burning coal, we should be burning wood but it's not feasible. If you had a dairy factory that is burning 100,000 tonnes of coal a year you'd have to put a million tonne of wood into it to get the same amount of heat. That would have to be dried, processed and delivered to the factory and at the end of it all you've still burned the carbon. You're not achieving anything," he said. 

He was afraid the miners wouldn't get a fair hearing from a Green Party Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage, who was formerly a Forest and Bird chief executive. 

The coal mining company was started in 1975.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
The coal mining company was started in 1975.

He was dismayed that Sage recently rejected a Buller mine which was estimated to provide about 60 jobs to the region despite it having ticked all resource consent boxes. Sage said it would have done "irreparable damage to an area with very high, unique and nationally significant conservation values".

Birchfield said the West Coast economy was already failing because of the lack of support for mining.  

When Barry Walker, a former science high school teacher, started at Westport's Stockton mine as a geologist 10 years ago, there were 1000 people working at the mine which operated 24/7. 

Today, only 250 people are employed to mine the hard coking coal which is exclusively exported for steel making.  

Sitting in an air-conditioned truck cab carting coal is very different to the work of the past, says Steve Murray.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Sitting in an air-conditioned truck cab carting coal is very different to the work of the past, says Steve Murray.

The mine was owned by failed Government-owned Solid Energy and was bought by BT Mining, which is 35 per cent owned by Talley's and 65 per cent by Bathurst Resources.  Bathurst owns 10,000ha of exploration and mining permits on the West Coast. 

Walker said the job cuts over the past six years had taken a toll on the miners. 

"We were planning for closure. We weren't sure from one day to the next if the mine would keep going. When BT Mining bought the mine it was a real relief. I went through five restructures, which was a terrible time of uncertainty.

"Two people that sat beside each other and battled this environment for many, many years and were in the same sports teams had to go and have an interview for one job and somebody would be the loser and that was happening again and again and again. You can imagine the morale."

Pit boss Peter Watson looks over the mine.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Pit boss Peter Watson looks over the mine.

Walker, along with his team of six, restores between 20 and 25ha of land every year, compared to the 3ha that is mined per year. Of the 1000 ha of disturbed land on Stockton they have rehabilitated 300ha.

The Stockton plateau overlooking Northern Buller is a harsh sub alpine environment, but has some of the most stunning sandstone landscapes and unique flora and fauna in the country. 

Some areas of the plateau now looks like a huge black pit, others are in various states of rehabilitation. 

Mining is a passion and a way of life for West Coast miners.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Mining is a passion and a way of life for West Coast miners.

To mine the area, the miners lift up 40cm of top soil and move it before blasting the underlying rock with explosives. They then dig out the rock and move it into overburden dumps. They then dig out the coal, sometimes in seams 10m thick. Once the coal is carted away the miners put the rock back into the hole. They cover the rock with granite and soil and then either move the uplifted vegetation back onto the land or replant it.

Walker's team plants 200,000 seeds a year which have been sourced from the plateau. 

"Everything here has been created by the rehabilitation crew. Every tree you see has been planted, every stump you see has been collected, every rock has been collected and placed there to give an impression of a reasonably natural landscape. It's very similar to the subalpine environment that was here originally."

"The seeds and the bugs survive. The moss, grasses and lichens are coming up through. You get die back but you're bringing the soil, the entire ecosystem comes with it, you get tremendous plants survival. It's like ready lawn," he said.

Steve Murray drives coal trucks, working for 10 hours a day.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Steve Murray drives coal trucks, working for 10 hours a day.

The water from the mine is collected and treated to lower the acidity before being discharged into the Ngakawau River, which is teaming with fish and whitebait, Walker says. 

He said the return of life was a measure of the miners' success. 

"Those girls and boys in the diggers take pride in their job and in where they live, they don't want this to be a gaping asshole, excuse my language. They want it to be something they can be proud of. The day of the dirty miner is ancient."

Jig operator William Webster in the plant control room.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Jig operator William Webster in the plant control room.

Ten years ago, Solid Energy employed people to search on their hands and knees with torches at night in the rain for rare land snails Powelliphanta augusta which are only found on the Augusta ridgeline. 

Of the 6000 snails taken from Mount Augustus, 4000 were moved to two new sites and the remaining 2000 snails and their subsequent offspring were kept in fridges in Hokitika. About 800 were frozen to death after a temperature probe failed but others have been released and 1200 snails and 800 eggs remain in captivity. Walker says the released snails have survived and are "happy" in the rehabilitated habitat. 

However, DOC's Western South Island director Mark Davies said it was not always possible to completely restore the habitat. Rehabilitation trials had shown that some sites contain weed species that weren't there previously and appear to show declining diversity, declining abundance of native species, and an increase of bare ground over time.

Brian Truner from Reefton heading home from the Birchfield coal mine on the work bus.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Brian Truner from Reefton heading home from the Birchfield coal mine on the work bus.

"The original habitat topped a rock pavement, which did not allow water or tree roots to permeate through. The rock pavement has been broken up by the mining and now drains freely. It is not clear whether the transferred vegetation will persist or if this is suitable habitat for the snails. 

"In the areas of new habitat on conservation land, monitoring suggests snails are doing OK, but because they are so slow to develop and breed, we can't be sure for a number of years yet that they have successfully adapted to their new environment," he said.

Walker says he has a "a very strong environmental ethos" and does more for the environment than just taking reusable bags to the supermarket. 

On the work bus home at the end of the day: (l-r) Brian Turner, Steve Murray and Robert Low.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
On the work bus home at the end of the day: (l-r) Brian Turner, Steve Murray and Robert Low.

"I've seen mums and dads produce kids, send their kids to high school and university, put clothes on their backs because they've had a job at Stockton. I've seen it support small communities so it's quite simple. Even in the slim-line mining that we're doing now, 250 people are employed directly. Out of 6000 people that live in Westport, it's enormous."

There is no alternative to hard coking coal for steel making and steel will be made with or without Stockton, he said. However, the high quality coking coal at Stockton will run out after 10 years without access to more DOC land. 

The company had plans to create a one-way sealed road for trucks through to coal reserves between Stockton and Te Kuha, creating decades of employment in the Buller. 

IAIN MCGREGOR/Stuff
These West Coast coal miners are proud of what they leave behind after the regeneration of their worksite.

Whether that will happen, is a matter for the politicians. 

West Coast Labour MP Damien O'Connor said he believed areas of high conservation values should not be mined. 

He believed there should be a review of stewardship land which had been waiting for classification for 30 years. 

"Some of that land is clearly not worthy of conservation protection and it should be available for mining or farming or other productive purposes. We're mining in a more environmentally friendly way, it's not destructive and there's proper rehabilitation," he said. 

Peter Watson on an old forestry bridge on the edge of the mine. Regeneration of planted native trees on the edge of the mine. As land is mined, the forest is transplanted to the old part of the mine.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Peter Watson on an old forestry bridge on the edge of the mine. Regeneration of planted native trees on the edge of the mine. As land is mined, the forest is transplanted to the old part of the mine.

He reassured the locals they would have their say and the unique challenges of the  West Coast would be taken into consideration. 

"We have to be practical, pragmatic and sensible about these policies ensuring we don't undermine the viability of the West Coast community or a sector in it that's always played a really strong part," he said. 

He said it was too early to say whether the Coast would receive compensation like the $120 million it received in 2000 when the Government ended native timber logging. 

Cabinet Minister Damian O'Connor gets a message from protestors at the opening of the Taramakau bridge.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Cabinet Minister Damian O'Connor gets a message from protestors at the opening of the Taramakau bridge.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said existing access agreements would be honoured.

"There will be a consultation document out in three months on how the policy will be implemented and what transitional measures are needed. There will be two months for public submissions," she said. 

She said mining would continue on the West Coast. There were 60 gold mines on the West Coast, half of which were on conservation land. Of the 22 coal mines on the Coast in 2016, 18 were actively producing coal and only seven of those were on DOC land.

"We want a diverse economy for the West Coast, not one that relies on the booms and busts of the mining industry. For example Bathurst came to Westport promising hundreds of jobs at the Escarpment mine and when the coal price fell it got mothballed."

She promised a "just transition" and was interested in hearing from the industry about what transitional measures were needed.  

She had visited Stockton two years ago and said the revegetation areas on the plateau were "nowhere close to what the original vegetation looked like".

"Ecosystems have been lost on the Stockton plateau that only existed in the Ngakawau ecological district," she said. 

Walker disagrees. 

"Some of the plants die and yes you have changed the landscape forever. It will never be exactly as it was before. It will however be an environment that has the plants and animals on it that were there before."

He believed the mine's access roads allowed people to see rare untouched sandstone landscapes they would have never seen otherwise. 

"If something is seen as special, then miners should look after it and that's one of your costs of mining. That's a win-win for everybody," he said. 

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