The Near Future
The sky becomes the sea, behind a recreation area at Carter’s Beach, west of Westport. With one concrete slab surrounded by rain-swamped grassed land, skate ramps share a space with a basketball hoop.
Coal required by kilns for cement production from nearby Escarpment Mine, thirty kilometres away on the Denniston Plateau. Holcim Cement Plant in Cape Foulwind closed in June 2016 after 58 years on the site. Bathurst Resources had closed the Escarpment Mine in May, due to Holcim being it’s main customer. Twenty one jobs were lost at the mine.
I wonder at what point this Matai Tree became a landmark, warranting its own sign and highway stopping bay. At what point does anything become a landmark?
Czech immigrant and photographer Joseph Divis (b. 1885) arrived in New Zealand in 1909, finding work as a coal-miner in Blackball. He settled in Waiuta later in life, where much of his time was spent documenting the town, events and the mine. When he died in 1967 he was one of Waiuta’s last inhabitants, and his glass negative archive was discovered when his house was cleared nearly twenty years after his death.
On the 19th of November 2010, an explosion ripped through the Pike River Mine, forty-six kilometres northeast of Greymouth. Twenty nine men were killed. While over 300 men have been killed in West Coast coal mining, this was the first major mining disaster in New Zealand to have mainstream media coverage in the modern technology age.
‘For Sale’ signs on a newly subdivided section on Lyndhurst St, Westport. A QV report from September 2016 showed the average house price in the Buller region to be valued at $193,319, down 16.5% from September 2012’s value of $231,654.
Cared for by local residents, Blackwater School lies on the road to Waiuta. The school house is kept as close as possible to its original setup. It was in use from 1913 until 1949, with Blackwater having a population of 149 in a census of 1901.
“To have a railroad, there must have been first the discoverers, who found out the properties of wood and iron, fire and water, and their latent power to carry men over the earth; next the organizers, who put these elements together, surveyed the route, planned the structure, set men to grade the hill, to fill the valley, and pave the road with iron bars; and then the administrators, who after all that is done, procure the engines, engineers, conductors, ticket-distributors, and the rest of the “hands;” they buy the coal and see it is not wasted, fix the rates of fare, calculate the savings, and distribute the dividends. The discoverers and organizers often fare hard in the world, lean men, ill-clad and suspected, often laughed at, while the administrator is thought the greater man, because he rides over their graves and pays the dividends, where the organizer only called for the assessments, and the discoverer told what men called a dream. What happens in a railroad happens also in a Church, or a State.”
– Theodore Parker
Coal is 80% of what is carried on the Midland Line. There have been freight disputes over fixed rates set in the past for transport between KiwiRail and Solid Energy. There is concern that the Line could be uneconomic in it’s current state with Solid Energy’s receivership, having severe implications for the coal route, and in turn the Line’s future.
Bathurst Resources faced battles with conservation groups due to the existence of endangered giant land snails on the Plateau. Afer closing in May, in September of 2016 stuff.co.nz reported there was a review being undertaken to reopen the mine, with international hard coking coal prices almost doubling in the five months it had been out of operation.
On the 26th of March 1896, sixty-five miners were killed underground in the Brunner Mine, due to an explosion and/or the resulting gases. This remains New Zealand’s deadliest industrial accident. The site has been restored and conserved, and visitors can wander amongst areas of the mine workings. Shaft entrances can be seen along the river, and still emit dangerous gases.
“What about him, is he still mining?”
“Nah, he’s out of work. Roa closed two months ago, and you can’t just transition from underground to opencast, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. Heavy vehicle licensing and such. Nah, I don’t know what he’ll do. He doesn’t know anything but coal mining.”
The cement plant at Cape Foulwind closed on June 29, 2016 ending 58 years of cement production in Westport. Holcim employed around 120 people before it began to wind down when closing was signalled in 2013.
Rust forms on a kiln that was turned off a month prior. As part of a controlled shut down process, the three kilns were stopped in a staggered manner. Positioned near the coastline, salt water effects the machinery, more so when it is not in operation.
Demolition of the plant is expected to start in 2017 and take at least a year, depending on what sells and what has to be disposed of. The cement works, packing plant, wharf silos and quarry are for sale, along with over 500ha of land and 11 houses.
Bartender at the Star Tavern, Cape Foulwind, at lunchtime on 29 June 2016, to Holcim ex-employee on final day of work:
“Looking forward to a holiday?”
Most of the redundant cement workers intended to stay in Westport, at least for the beginning of the change. Some would retire or semi-retire, some had already found jobs, others were staying for a few months to decide what next. Many staff went to work at the Cement Plant straight from school to start apprenticeships, some having served up to 46 years with the company on the site.
Locals expressed a sense of unease at the lack of smoke billowing from the chimneys, for the first time in 58 years. In July 2014, Holcim began a Tools for the Future programme to help equip workers for after the works closed. It ran courses like barista training and chainsaw skills, and gave every worker a toolbox. Workers received tools for their toolboxes when they met targets.
On the Monday of the Plant’s final week of operation, every worker received a parting gift–an umbrella and a ratchet spanner set.
Dairy farming in the Lower Buller Gorge, near Inangahua. With high rainfall in the area, many sheep and beef farms from the 1990’s converted to dairy. Local dairy co-operative Westland Milk Products remained independent when most others merged to form Fonterra in 2001.
With Holcim being the main customer of Westport’s Port, seven of ten Port staff were made redundant with the closing of the Cement Plant. Westport Harbour got 80% of its revenue from Holcim, who also covered 100% of the cost of dredging the Buller River.
Without dredging, it is feared the bed of the Buller River will build up with gravel, increasing the risk of flooding in the town.
The Maruia Declaration was a public petition presented to parliament in 1977 calling for the immediate phasing out of the logging of virgin native forest in New Zealand. It carried 341,160 signatures. Logging has been identified as an industry that has the potential to help the West Coast economy–creating jobs for skilled workers. For this to happen, legislation would need to change.
The Strongman Mine (New Zealand’s largest state-owned underground coal mine) operated from 1938 to 2003. On 19 January 1967 a gas explosion in the mine killed 19 miners. An inquiry found that safety procedures had not been followed. In 1994 the original mine was replaced by the Strongman 2 mine further up the Nine Mile valley. The Strongman 2 mine closed in 2003.
Holcim’s Cape Foulwind quarry meets the sea at Gibsons beach, obscured by tussock and rock formation. A track leading from the Cape Foulwind Lighthouse carpark leads past picnic tables down to the beach, with a sign that reads:
“WALKWAY TO GIBSONS BEACH
CAUTION REQUIRED ON STEEP TRACK
ACCESS HAS BEEN KINDLY PROVIDED BY HOLCIM”
Concrete structures lie directly alongside the Midland Line. The site to the East of the remains of the timber mill, on a hill, is the original forested site for milling. It is now a subdivision, close to the lakeside recreation town of Moana, Lake Brunner.
After the deadly explosions of November 2010 forcing the company into receivership, Pike River Coal was sold to Solid Energy in 2012 under a conditional agreement that included the recovery of the bodies of twenty-nine miners still inside the mine. In 2014 it was announced that Solid Energy would not re-enter the mine. They sighted potentially fatal risk factors making the recovery attempt too dangerous.
With the Tasman sea to the right of the frame, the sun sets behind the chimneys of Holcim’s closed Cape Foulwind Cement Plant. A $250 million waste to energy plant proposed for the site would burn rubbish collected from around the South Island. It has been said that the plant could be the key to reviving the West Coast economy.
It is believed that in precolonisation times the vicinity of Runanga was a camping place for Maori from Mawhera (Greymouth) who hunted birds on the nearby spurs of Paparoa Range. The progress of the town and district dates from 1904, when local mines commenced to produce coal. The name means “assembly” or “meeting”. It is said that an important whare runanga (meeting house) stood there.
“In the city, the miners’ hard labour produces less a feeling of awe than a fascination at the antiquity of their task. [...] This, the archetypal working class, has seen its emotional influence dwindle as steadily as it’s numbers and along with its political and economic power.”
– Bruce Connew
KiwiRail transports coal from Ngakawau on the West Coast, through the Southern Alps to Lyttelton Port. The Midland Line also carries shipments of Westland Dairy milk products from Hokitika to Christchurch and runs the TranzAlpine passenger service. Uncertainty within any of these industries leads to uncertainty in the viability of the Line.
Otira was originally a stop on the Cobb and Co stagecoach from Canterbury to the West Coast. The Midland Line was extended from Stillwater to Jacksons in 1894 and then Otira in 1899, when the pass was navigated by coach from Otira until the railway tunnel opened in 1923. During construction of the tunnel, Otira housed about 600 workers and their families.
Topic of debate - “West Coast Leadership Continues To Fail”
Runanga of the affirmative, Blackball in defence.
“Yeah, they kick us in the guts, but we’re Coasters. We hold our chins up high and carry on.”
In Coalbrookdale’s early days it had a population of over 190. On the Denniston Plateau, it sits between the historic coal mining town/operations of Denniston, and the newly mined Escarpment Mine by Bathurst Resources.
The mine at Waiuta had been the West Coast’s wealthiest in the 20th century. The town celebrated surviving 25 years of creating an identity that the residents were proud of, and money raised during the jubilee was used to build the swimming pool. Few local goldmining communities lived to celebrate even their 5th anniversary.
Mountain-like forms are reflected in the skate park from the Rapahoe Range in the distance. With the surrounding area in a state of disrepair, what is here for children? Runanga’s main employer is coal mining, yet with the next generation leaving as quickly as possible, what would convince them stay?
“When coal came into the picture, it took about 50 or 60 years to displace timber. Then, crude oil was found, and it took 60, 70 years, and then natural gas. So it takes 100 years or more for some new breakthrough in energy to become the dominant source. Most people have difficulty coming to grips with the sheer enormity of energy consumption.”
“A celebration of Buller coal and a tribute to the development of infrastructure that resulted from mining and transportation to National and International markets, to the pioneers, who created a region to be proud of, and to the people of today whose livelihoods are centred around Buller’s world famous, high-quality, bituminous coal.”
– Coaltown Museum
Solid Energy was the largest coal mining company in New Zealand, a state owned enterprise of the New Zealand Government. The company was formed from former government department, State Coal Mines, and then established as a state owned enterprise, Coal Corporation (Coalcorp) in 1987. It was renamed Solid Energy New Zealand Limited in 1997. Solid Energy went into voluntary administration in August 2015, owing 1500 creditors $320 million.
Stockton mine employed over 1000 people before Solid Energy began debt crisis talks in 2012. In March of 2016, this was closer to 200. Stockton, like other Solid Energy assets, is for sale–with closure remaining an option. With a population of just over 10,000, the Buller district has lost more than 1,000 full-time jobs in the last few years–the equivalent of Auckland losing around 13,000 jobs.
The West Coast community functions in environmental tension, with their livelihood relying on extraction industries, while also being strongly passionate about the protection of their wildlife/flora and fauna. The use of 1080 poison bait to keep populations of possums, rats and stoats under control is highly contested, with concerns for native birds and water supply.
In 1888 Reefton became the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to receive electricity, giving it the tag line “The Town of Light”. Rich veins of gold were found in a quartz reef nearby, and in it’s heyday the town boasted a population of several thousand. Due to the atmospheric conditions from the surrounding hills, the town is often shrouded in fog.