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Rio Tinto extracts things to make money.
The Anglo-Australian mega-miner extracts ore from the ground; it extracts concessions from governments; and it extracts loyalty from those who rely on its business to secure their jobs.
It has maintained a singular focus on extraction and conversion for about 147 years. It is the third-biggest mining company in the world and it has not always got there by playing fair.
Of course, fairness is not necessarily an important foundation upon which business decisions are made. Fairness might even cost a business which, to be fair, exists to make money.
The extent to which Rio Tinto is ‘‘fair’’ has been tested in the long-running but increasingly urgent fight to shift 9500 tonnes of ouvea premix from storage at Mataura’s old paper mill.
Ouvea — often called dross — is a byproduct of the aluminium smelting process. The dross stored at Mataura was made at New Zealand Alumium Smelters (NZAS) plant about an hour down the road.
The flooded Matarua River threatened the storage area this month. Had its waters combined with the ouvea, a cloud of dangerous, toxic ammonia gas may have settled over the town.
The ouvea was not stored there by NZAS, which is 80% owned by Rio Tinto. It was stored there by Taha Industries, which the company paid to take the dross off its hands in 2014.
Taha Enterprises went into liquidation in 2016. It stayed there as a deal was made between the Government and local councils to help pay to move it from that and other sites over six years.
On the face of it, NZAS and Rio Tinto can say they are doing what they can to deal with someone else’s problem. A contractor failed and the smelter’s owner committed $1.75 million to clean up what was left.
Besides, the dross is due to leave the mill site within just over two and a-half years.
But that was then, this is now. This month, hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes because of the dual risk of flooding and a gas leak. Local concerns were very nearly realised.
After the flood, the Gore District Council thought it had a handshake agreement with NZAS to fast-track the dross’ removal. Soon after, Rio Tinto’s board pulled it out of the deal.
It was clear NZAS would not take the dross back to the smelter while it was subject to a strategic review — a review called as the company complained it paid too much to get its electricity.
The last time NZAS complained about transmission charges, the Government found $30 million to keep it going. This time, locals — and the Southland Chamber of Commerce — seized the initiative.
More than 5000 people signed an online petition supporting a campaign urging the Government to what it pays to get its electricity from the Manapouri Power Station.
They want to change the ‘‘current power transmission inequality’’. Their ‘‘Fight For Fair’’ campaign tells the Government ‘‘we don’t want a handout, we just want fair’’.
Rio Tinto and NZAS can argue whether the smelter is paying too much
but neither can argue their actions of the past fortnight have not betrayed southern loyalty.
Neither are being ‘‘fair’’.
It seems unfair Rio Tinto would back out of handshake deal in a part of the world where a handshake still means something.
It seems unfair it has not repaid petitioners’ loyalty with the demonstrable loyalty of a long-supported good corporate citizen.
It was reported Rio Tinto did not send a representative to a public meeting at Mataura on Friday, where worried locals vented their anger as they sought answers. That, too, seems unfair.
Environment Minister David Parker notes Rio Tinto has a history of crying wolf over its financial situation, to try to wring out concessions.
If the Government sues to force action, as Mr Parker indicated he may consider, then the loyalty Rio Tinto has capitalised on will be sorely tested.
It has no mines there but it has extracted plenty from the South. It is time it extracted the dross from Mataura.