Delight in South at Tiwai news

Workers at the Tiwai smelter are ecstatic at today's news the business will continue operating for another three years.

Staff members and contractors were advised about the extension via their phones this morning.

"Rio Tinto has reached a new eletricity agreement that allows Tiwai to continue operating until 31 December 2024. Crew briefings are scheduled to share more info. Please remain focused in whatever you do; your safety and wellbeing and that of your crewmates is our biggest priority," the message reads.

A Tiwai worker, who had been with the company for 25 years and wished to remain anonymous, said staff would now be able to start planning their lives.

He found out about the "great news" via text this morning.

"It’ll make everyone down there a lot happier."

From conversations with other workers, he got the feeling a lot of people had to put life plans on hold due to all the uncertainty.

The financial burden was felt company-wide, especially when it came to applying for a loan after banks refused to approve them for Tiwai workers, he said.

The Tiwai Point aluminium smelter in Southland could close in August 2021, although its...
The Tiwai Point aluminium smelter. Photo: ODT files

While the communication from Tiwai heads had been constant throughout the process, workers were "all in the same boat" and did not know what was going to happen.

"I guess I was starting to get quite impatient."

He hoped the additional four years would provide more time to settle the remediation of the site, and a further extension could be signed-off.

"Ecstatic" was the word E tu negotiation speciaist Joe Gallagher used to describe how workers were feeling after they got the news today.

"Everyone is happy. It was a trying time and I'm pleased that people have come together to keep Tiwai open and viable.

"It was what we were pushing for. More time is great for everyone - it allows a transition and workers can plan their futures."

It’s not just the workers who were relieved to hear the news.

Contractors in the province were also thrilled to hear their services may still be required.

Invercargill workplace rental and laundry solutions business McCallums Group has been a contractor with Tiwai for nearly 50 years.

Group sales and marketing manager Paul Harrington said when his team received the news in an email about 8am this morning, there was "massive relief".

"It gives us stability for our business, for our staff and it allows us to grow.

"We are now in a position where we can heavily invest in the business [Tiwai]."

While the message was brief, it was nothing short of positive.

Direct business with the smelter made up 18% of McCallums Group workload, providing uniforms and laundry services for over 2,000 staff since 1974.

When the group were first made aware of Tiwai’s pending closure, they were reluctant to invest in the machinery because the "payback wouldn’t be there".

"There was this massive cloud over us, now we can put on the accelerator."

A meeting between contractors and NZAS representatives would be held tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Southland leaders are positive about today's announcement but say they are are focused on ensuring initiatives for future business development are at the forefront of planning.

Invercargill Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt, who is in Auckland on holiday, said he was feeling "fantastic" about the news.

"It is a great way to start the year.

"Well, of course the euphoria is dominating my feelings at the moment.''

He said the news about the New Zealand Aluminium Smelter (NZAS) at Tiwai couldn't have come at a better time and showed all the campaigning had been successful.

Sir Tim Shadbolt: "We've just been dumped in the caca more or less." Photo: ODT files
Sir Tim Shadbolt. Photo: ODT files
The positive to be taken from the situation was the work being done in the region to develop aquaculture and other options to diversify Southland's economy, he said.

He was going to have a Zoom meeting with other leaders this afternoon to discuss future business ideas for Southland.

Southland Regional Development Agency Great South chief executive Graham Budd said he was relieved and pleased to hear the news this morning.

He said it would give confidence to the economy.

"But most importantly, the Southland jobs, direct and indirect, that the smelter employs - any impact on that was our major concern."

He believed there had been enough support from central government, ministers and the Prime Minister.

"I think the negotiation, or some elements as I understand it, of the decision and transmission pricing component in particular, is still being negotiated."

He said that showed good faith.

Going forward, there were plans to diversify and grow alternative options for land use in the Southland economy.

"I'm really encouraged by some of the other initiatives being developed in the region."

SIT chief executive Penny Simmonds addresses the Enrich: Celebrating Women in Business event....
Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds. PHOTOS: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds said the deal was good news for smelter staff, contractors and wider Southland community.

"Tiwai Point is an important part of Southland’s economy and it is vital to have this certainty for the next four years.

"There are a number of new opportunities being discussed around hydrogen, and this extension will create the space to do the business case and take the community along.

She said the National party would work proactively with interested parties to ensure the industrial site continued to benefit the local and national economy for future years.

Labour List MP Dr Liz Craig welcomed Rio Tinto’s Agreement with Meridian Energy.

"This is fantastic news for Southland and will provide certainty, not only for Tiwai workers, but also for the local businesses that rely on Tiwai for much of their income.”

The transition  now provided the timeframe for government to work alongside local Mayors, iwi, the Southland business community and others to map out a transition plan for our region, she said.

Southland Chamber of Commerce president Neil McAra said the news was positive.

''We won four years in terms of a deal.''

However, Southland leaders would continue to work hard to explore another potential for the use of energy.

After months of uncertainty, NZAS general manager Stew Hamilton said it was great to finally have some assurance.

He said the mood in the plant was quite good as everybody was happy with the outcome.

"That has been a process which has been ongoing for many many months. It is nice to get to the stage where we are finally able to provide some certainty. So very happy to be able to do that indeed."

He said it was good to have this positive news not only for his team but for the Southland community.

"I really feel for people on site, and also for people in Southland because this has been weighing heavily on everybody.

"It is a good way to kick 2021 off - we had this confirmation and certainty for four years so we can now think about planning for the future. It is a good day."

He said workers were advised this morning through text message, meetings and calls for the ones who were not in the site.

Mr Hamilton said one of the main points of the discussion between Meridian and Rio Tinto, the transmissions cost, were not part of this agreement.

The agreement was focused on the price of electricity, he said.

"This is an agreement which has been announced by Meridian and NZAS. It is really for Meridian to comply with electricity to ourselves  over the next four years. That's been agreed by Meridian to provide certainty over this four years so we can plan for the future.

"However, we will continue to have discussions with the New Zealand Government to achieve a fair price in transmissions. Those discussions will continue to take place over the income months."

Mr Hamilton said the negotiations about the remediation of the site, following the smelter closure, were still ongoing.

"Now that we have some certainty, gives us time to continue to talk with numerous stakeholders, including the Government, Ngai Tahu . . . around what the future looks like beyond 2024. "

Chairman of Southland Mayoral Forum Tracy Hicks earlier said it was good to finally hear some good news.

"I think it is a sense of relief."

He said it was a relief on two fronts -  first in the sense of security for Tiwai's employees and also to give time for the province to look and evaluate other opportunities.

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