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Buller’s Stockton Plateau coal production reaches 50 Million

14 December 2011

Buller’s Stockton Plateau coal production reaches 50 Million tonnes

The 50 millionth tonne of high-quality coking coal mined from the Stockton Plateau in Buller has been railed to Lyttelton for export. The Plateau’s output over more than 110 years would be worth $15 trillion ($15,000,000,000) at today’s price (US$230 or NZ$300 a tonne), or $15 million a hectare.

Of the total, almost 60 per cent (29 Million tonnes) has been produced since 1987 when Stockton Mine’s owner, Solid Energy, was set up as a state owned enterprise.

Today, almost all the low-ash bituminous coal mined on the Plateau is exported, to customers who use it in a coking coal mix and convert it to high-quality coke, an essential ingredient in steelmaking. In the early part of last century, however, it was the coal’s extremely high energy content which was most valued. Stockton coal fuelled New Zealand’s rapid industrialisation – steam-powered railways, freezing works and dairy factories servicing the new refrigerated export industry and the steamships which carried our primary products to markets around the world. Photographs from the early part of the 20th century show the Westport docks lined with colliers.

It was July 1896 when the first commercial load of coal from Westport Coal Company’s new Millerton underground mining area was brought down from the plateau on the 3.6km Granity Incline. In 1908 the Westport Stockton Coal Company also starting mining at Stockton after building a narrow-gauge electric railway and incline to get its product down to the coast at Ngakawau.

Westport Stockton Coal Co produced a total of 4.5 Million tonnes from the plateau before becoming part of State Coal Mines in 1945. Westport Coal lasted a little longer in private ownership, joining State Coal Mines in 1948. With peak annual production of 358,000 tonnes and 587 men in 1914, Westport Coal’s Millerton underground mines (Old Dip, Mine Creek, Mine Creek East, Mangatini and 3rd West Extended) produced a total of 10 Million tonnes. One other company, Westport Main Coal Co, also played a role in the early days, building a third incline and opening the Rockies Mine in 1925. The mine closed after 11 years and it was not until 2008 that the resource was again being worked, this time by Rockies Mining Ltd.

In the 1950s demand for Stockton coal decreased and production declined as hydro-electric power and diesel fuel became more available. However, in the late 1970s Japanese steel makers became interested in the excellent coking properties of Stockton coal. Following some successful trial shipments, new coal handling facilities were built at Ngakawau in 1980 and the export coking coal trade commenced.

In 1986 State Coal Mines reported a loss of $76 million and, in a move designed to make coal mining profitable, the Government decided in 1987 to corporatise the organisation. Under the new state owned enterprise, Stockton Mine expanded production as additional coking coal markets (mainly China and India) were found. Annual production reached 500,000 tonnes in 1990, 1 Million tonnes in 1995 and then 1.5 Million tonnes in 2002. This production expansion has seen direct employment rise substantially from 210 in 1987 to 800 at present.

Prior to 1944 all mining on the Stockton Plateau used underground methods. Opencast mining was first introduced at Webb Mine and for the next 35 years coal was produced by both underground and opencast mining. The last underground mine closed in 1980 and since then all output has been from opencast mining. In 1953 the Stockton aerial ropeway was commissioned and to date the aerial has transported over 33 Million tonnes of coal to the rail loadout at Ngakawau.

In the late 1890s, Westport Coal Co told its shareholders it estimated the Millerton mining lease had 30 Million tonnes of coal. Today, even after the extraction of 50 Million tonnes, Solid Energy’s exploration and resource-proving programme estimates its holdings in the Buller Coalfield still comprise approximately 26 Million tonnes of reserves and resources totalling another 55 Million tonnes of coking and thermal coal.

Some information in this release is taken from Norman Crawshaw’s 1996 centenary book, From Clouds to Sea (ISBN 0-473-04191-X). Another good source of information is the Te Ara website --

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