Southland leaders to press Tiwai case

Tiwai Point supporters have been told there is a "window" to prevent the final closure of the aluminium smelter, the Otago Daily Times understands.

However, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said yesterday he "heard a very definitive statement from Rio Tinto about its closure".

About 90 Tiwai stakeholders were involved in a meeting yesterday at Ascot Park Hotel, Invercargill, with the smelter’s general manager, Stew Hamilton.

While the Otago Daily Times was asked to leave the venue, it is understood contractors were told owner Rio Tinto wanted sweeping changes made to the amount it spends on electricity to keep the smelter open.

A source, who did not want to be named, said the company wanted the price of power cut dramatically, by up to $100million, and its transmission costs cut much more significantly, and urgently, than proposed under the transmission pricing review.

Those at the meeting were also told the company would continue to run the plant as it is until the end of the year, while it worked out how to wind-down operations.

The new year would be the "point of no return" when the company would stop ordering alumina and raw materials.

Rio Tinto declined to comment.

Mayoral forum chairman and Gore District Mayor Tracy Hicks confirmed he had "heard" the smelter needed a severe reduction in power prices in order to keep it open.

"The members of the mayoral forum are urging both Rio Tinto and Government to engage and explore all avenues before this becomes irretrievable. And I was given the understanding by Rio there is a window — a really short window."

When asked what the mayors could do to help Rio Tinto achieve better prices, he replied they could "facilitate conversation between parties".

"I just think we just need to explore that a bit more and that is really what I want to do. Just leave no stone unturned to see just what the opportunities are. It might be real, it might not be — we will see."

However, any chance of a government bailout have been rejected.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Mr Robertson and other party leaders will visit Southland next week.

Mr Robertson was giving nothing away.

"I heard a very definitive statement from Rio Tinto on Thursday about the closure, so the Government will now get alongside the people of Southland to grow jobs in the region."

National Party leader Todd Muller will also visit the region next Friday.

A spokeswoman confirmed the visit yesterday and said the party would be focusing on jobs for the region.

During the visit it was expected National would present its solution on Tiwai.

Southland Chamber of Commerce board president Neil McAra said the visit by both party leaders was an opportunity to present "Southland’s case".

He believed the case to save the plant was still alive and said civic leaders would be pushing that agenda.

He said he would also look to other areas of recovery and mentioned a number of shovel-ready plans had already been presented as part of the Covid-19 response.

"But Tiwai is our priority and our key focus."


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