Tiwai Point smelter: Uncertainty for workers, local economy and environment

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As Christmas approaches, the Tiwai Point smelter’s 1000 staff go into the holidays uncertain of their future.

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Photo: Graham Dainty 2012

The Labour Party campaigned on keeping the aluminium smelter open for another three to five years.

But unless a solution can be found, the closure of the smelter will go ahead in August next year.

Earlier this month, government ministers flew into Invercargill, where they were unable to provide any certainty for workers.

Anna Huffstutler, a Southland organiser for E tū, said Tiwai’s workers still remained hopeful of a positive outcome.

“It’s never nice to be sitting with uncertainty for such a long time, so there’ll be some anxiety there. However, the government along with local iwi are working hard to get a good deal that will benefit the region and hopefully workers.

“My understanding is those negotiations are ongoing and hopefully we will hear something early in the new year, if not before.”

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In addition to about 1000 people employed directly by the smelter, another 1600 owe their income to contracting and services required to keep the plant running.

Southland Mayoral Forum chairperson Tracy Hicks said everyone had hoped for some certainty before Christmas.

“I was really hoping that this would’ve been wrapped up by now,” he said.

“It is still ongoing, and I guess that’s always a plus, but I really do worry and I know my colleagues worry about the morale and security of workers and the community in the south because everybody is worried about what the future might hold for them. We all like certainty and getting that certainty sooner rather than later would be good.”

Ngāi Tahu also entered the fray with Te Runaka o Awarua Upoku, Sir Tipene O’Regan, sending a letter to Rio Tinto earlier this month calling on the mining giant to give local Māori a voice in the process.

Sir Tipene said when Rio Tinto eventually leaves, iwi do not want to see the surplus energy supplied by Manapōuri hydro station going to waste and had a vision for a green hydrogen production in the future.

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But firstly the iwi was concerned with a managed exit so not to cripple the region’s economy and to ensure Tiwai Point was appropriately remediated once the smelter’s doors closed.

“We have a lot of anxiety about the effect on the environment of the smelter closing and being left with a national environmental disaster,” Sir Tipene said.

Rio Tinto did not wish to comment, saying they did not want to conduct negotiations through the media.

Minister of Energy and Resources Megan Woods said the government was doing all it could to ensure Rio Tinto kept operating the smelter for another three or more years beyond its anticipated closure in August 2021.

The government was also determined to avoid a toxic wasteland being left behind, she said.

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