Govt looks at fast tracking mining to help workers

By Adam Bennett

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn. Photo / Doug Sherring
Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn. Photo / Doug Sherring

The Government is considering fast tracking the expansion of coal mining operations on the West Coast as part of bid to prevent almost 400 workers who have lost jobs as a result of the Pike River disaster having to leave the area.

Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee also said the Government would consider allowing open-cast mining at the Pike River site, where the coal seam lies up to 150m below conservation land.

Mr Brownlee met Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn and West Coast Development Trust head John Sturgeon yesterday and later revealed plans for an "economic stimulus" package for the West Coast.

The Pike River mine had recently given a significant economic boost to the area,, contributing about $13 million a year in wages alone.

But 114 workers were made redundant this week as the company was placed in receivership. Further jobs, including those of about 260 workers indirectly employed by the operation, are also likely to go.

Mr Kokshoorn said workers were already receiving phone calls from Australian mining companies and unless jobs were quickly made available on the West Coast, much of the highly skilled work force would be lost.

Several new mining and infrastructure projects on the West Coast were in initial stages of development but were still some way off hiring.

"The challenge is to try and find the opportunities for those people to remain in the district until those other opportunities come on stream," said Mr Brownlee.

Several possible projects would be explored over the next two months, some involving state-owned coal miner Solid Energy, but Mr Brownlee was unable to give further details.

Mr Kokshoorn said the plan would raise "some issues" with the Resource Management Act and the possibility of "bringing forward" some coal mines on the coast "needs to be worked through between all the parties".

"The Green Party and all those people need to have a little bit of sympathy here," he said.

But Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said his party opposed any expansion of coal mining because of the resulting environmental effects.

If there was to be a large engineering project on the West Coast, the Greens favoured a proposal to generate electricity by running acidic water from mining activity on the Stockton Plateau, which is discharged into the Ngakawau River, through a series of tunnels to the sea.

"There are options whereby we could have big engineering projects with lots of jobs which would have environmental benefits."

Mr Brownlee said he was aware it might be seen as inappropriate to rush into mining projects when there were still unanswered questions about the Pike River disaster.

"But what we're talking about are mining operations that are in place ... whether or not existing operations can be expanded and, of course, there is the bigger question of what to do with the known resource at Pike River."

The possibility of open casting the Pike River mine - removing up to 150m of rock to access the coal seam below conservation land in the Paparoa ranges - was not being discounted.

"But I've got to say that is a very big consideration and not something that would be looked at for implementation over the next 12 months."

Mr Brownlee said the Government would consider proposals over the Christmas break with a view to the first jobs being generated from February onward.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister John Key yesterday said he hoped the Pike River Miners' Relief Fund Trust, which is being run by the Grey District Council, would begin making payments to the miners' families soon.

At the end of last week, donations to the trust totalled $4.4 million.

- NZ Herald

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