Spring Creek miners: Where's our $30m?

By Laura Mills of the Greymouth Star

File photo / APN
File photo / APN

Out-of-work Spring Creek miners were today accusing the Government of hypocrisy after it gave $30 million of taxpayer money to save the Tiwai Point smelter yesterday, but refused to stump up anything to save the underground State-owned mine at Greymouth.

Last year, with the mine future in the balance, Development West Coast proposed that the Government underwrite a deal to keep Spring Creek going. It would not have cost any taxpayer money but would have preserved 160 jobs.

An earlier proposal from the union asked for $37m. That was also rejected.

But Australian-based Rio Tinto has been given $30m, and in earlier deals South Canterbury Finance was bailed out by taxpayers to the tune of $1.5 billion.

Team New Zealand received $36m to contest the America's Cup, the Government gave $40m to the Rugby World Cup, and spent $2m on a plastic waka that was only open for 11 days.

Former Spring Creek coalminer Les Neilson, who travelled to Wellington last year to ask for $37m for the ailing mine, said today he thought it was right to give Tiwai the money, but accused the Government of ``hypocrisy''.

Finance Minister Bill English is the National MP for Clutha Southland.

``It's all political for them,'' Mr Neilson said.

``They have a National MP down there. They couldn't care about us. They've hated miners from the start.''

Mr Neilson said the miners' trip to Wellington had been a ``waste of time they didn't even look at what was proposed''.

Runanga miner Kevin Murcott was also part of the Wellington deputation and he said they had a portfolio of data showing how Spring Creek could be streamlined and saved for $37m, but ``they never even looked at it''.

The deal was done before they even reached the capital, he said.

``They seem to squash everything on the Coast. What can you do? It sucks.''

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said the $30m announced yesterday was going to an Australian-owned company, yet the Government had blocked giving anything to Solid Energy, which it owned.

Up to 50 million tonnes of coal could have been mined by open-cast near Spring Creek, but instead Solid Energy was left in limbo, he said.

``It's the best coal in New Zealand. I'm pleased for Invercargill, but Sold Energy's West Coast mines need to be restructured. What's going on?''

West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor said Tiwai was a huge part of the Southland economy.

It had been running reasonably efficiently, which was probably one reason why it got the money. However, behind Spring Creek, the Solid Energy board was in ``chaos''.

``But we have to be supportive of regional development.''

Mr O'Connor also criticised Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce, who said in Parliament yesterday that the West Coast economy was one of the fastest growing in the country.

Mr O'Connor pointed out the minister was quoting old figures.

Since Solid Energy hit the skids, unemployment on the Coast has been growing, house prices have dropped and retail sales are in a slump. Businesses have also closed.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Mr English said that while the Government was always concerned about job losses, and the impact of them on families and local communities such as the West Coast, taxpayers could not indefinitely support businesses that were not viable.

``Solid Energy's board continues to

work on restructuring the company so that it might become sustainable financially.

``A unique set of circumstances, including the interests of the New Zealand electricity market, were taken into account when the Government agreed to a one-off payment to assist the Tiwai Point situation. Restructuring will continue as the smelter's owners work towards making it financially viable.''

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