Print
Bange on the Waihi Borough Council 1960 – 1988

From memory it was about the mid 1970's, that the first interest was shown. Council received applications for small diameter drill holes to be put down in several places and the use of water from the public supply system. These were readily granted with the condition, water use be metered and paid for, and the site reinstated on completion. I believe the odd drill hole was put down on private property, with a negotiated lump sum payment made to the owner.

At one stage a drilling rig was operating on the verge area of Seddon Ave just West of Martin Road, so they were generally in full public view. Not a murmur was heard from the public. At the time Council had no input at all into any (mining) exploration licenses issued by the Mines Department in Wellington, through the Mining Registrar at the Waihi Court house.

It was not very long before a large part of the town and adjoining County area's were covered in new licenses. I believe a license over Martha Hill was being held by a company, which had opened up and was operating the old 'lead mine', on Mount Te Aroha, without any obvious exploration activities on Martha Hill.

It was not until a 'speculative entrepreneur' Jack Barbarich managed to acquire this license that things started to happen on 'the Hill'. Jack established a small processing plant, East of the Recreation Reserve, near the historic cyanide vats and started processing the top 'soil area' from the surrounding site as well as 'samples' of mined mullock from Martha Hill, recovering small quantities of gold.

There still was little, if any, liaison between the Mines Department and Council and no harm was done, until just before the issue of a new prospecting license for Martha Hill. This intended to allow for an unspecified as to size 'bulk sample' to be removed from Martha Hill.

The Borough Council, 'somehow or other', became aware of this proposal cooked up in Wellington, and alarm bells started ringing. The Mayor Town Clerk and myself went to Wellington to meet the minister (I think it was Tizzard at the time) and managed to convince him, that the proposed license went way beyond Prospecting and was in affect a 'pilot mining' operation. Consequently the following were achieved:

The bulk sample was limited to 30,000 tons and a cash bond (the first ever) was attached to the license.

A meeting was conveyed at the Waihi Borough Chambers with representatives of all the parties now involved or interested (Government departments, local authorities, Catchment Board came to mind), and the Minister in attendance. From then on the Borough Council stayed in the loop on any mining related developments in their area.

To operate the 'Prospecting license', Jack Barbarich (Managing Director of Mineral Resources), attracted several short term 'partners'. Generally large earthmoving contractors who brought in their own heavy plant onto Martha Hill. One of these was Green and McCahill.

The 'bulk sample' was being taken by reopening the original open cut located on the West side of Martha Hill. As a matter of interest I regularly visited the operations on the Hill. On one such occasion, talking to the Contractor's foreman on the job, I asked him, whether he realised that he was excavating over the top of extensive old underground mining works, of which there was a glass model in the local Museum?? "No, he was not aware of that, neither had anybody told him about it", was his answer.

Within a few days of this conversation, a large collapse occurred over night in the working area and when I visited the site, the same foreman I spoke to earlier, talking about the 'hole' in utter disbelief said 'All of my plant could have been swallowed up in there.' Fortunately no plant was lost or anybody injured. That event stopped Green and McCahill in their tracks.

Meantime Jack Barbarich was scouting around (internationally), for a major partner. He was a regular visitor to my office and on more than one occasion told me, that he himself was never going to 'mine the Hill'. But, holding the license, he was convinced that he could make his fortune if he could 'prove' that the Hill still contained adequate gold resources. He was an interesting and colourful character and Jack was as comfortable, slogging away in dirty working clothes, at the 'coal front' in his gold recovery plant, near the Recreation Reserve, as he was in gentleman's attire in a corporate boardroom' selling his dream'. He had sunk every penny he possessed in this venture. By this time rumours were rife in the town. Some old timers swearing, there was still a fortune of gold in the old workings on the Hill and others swearing the exact opposite, nothing left!! One of the latter was the then Mayor of Waihi, Owen Morgan.

Council as a whole was some what divided as to the 'pros' and 'cons' of possible? renewed mining activities in the town. As well, around this time, the 'anti mining lobby', supported and often initiated by persons well outside of our district, started to make it's presence felt.

Eventually, Jack Barbarich managed to interest a major partner into his venture. A big American mining company, AMAX. This company had the resources, and risk capital for a thorough and in depth exploration programme on Martha Hill. At this stage it became extremely important for Council to 'show it's hand', to assure it remained 'in the loop' on developments controlled by Central Government (Mines Department).

I myself was convinced, that if it could be 'proven' economic gold reserves were still present in the Hill, a mining license would be issued to replace an initial prospecting license. Whether it was this conviction (which I regularly expressed at Council meetings) or not, I cannot be sure of, but in the end Council resolved to be in support of a full exploration programme so that once and for all the 'fate of the Hill' could be determined.

Earlier on I had picked up a parcel of Mineral Resources shares (I think 20,000 shares in total), when they were at rock bottom @ two cents each purely as a gamble. Despite the fact, that I had more than enough work on my plate, to improve and maintain Borough services, I became heavily involved in evaluating the impact major prospecting and possible follow up mining would have on the Borough and it's inhabitants. With Council in principle in support of the activity, I managed to convince Council, that knowledgeable input would be required for it to be taken seriously in the 'condition setting process'. As a consequence Council engaged several Consultants as its advisors. Jim Clark (a partner in Murray North at the time) being one of the main ones. I and the Council's solicitor George Gay, were the main liaison, between all other parties and Council. Many hours, outside working hours, often whole weekends were spent by George and me to iron out Council's input. Not all ratepayers were happy with the expenditure of rating finance on mining related issues, but I myself am convinced, that if Council's input had not been as thorough as it was, many ultimate conditions attached to the Mining license would not have been as "severe" as they were. The conditions arrived at and imposed, virtually became a standard for other prospecting and mining licenses issued by the Mines Department since (in the whole country).

The first office of AMAX in Waihi was situated in School Lane, in Seath's old furniture factory building, now the site of the Waihi Medical Centre. One of the geologists employed there, Don MacKay, is still in Waihi now (2004), and involved in further exploration around Waihi. My daughter Judy worked in that office for a while and I think it was there, that she met her first husband John Gilles, a professional photographer, who came out from Australia to do some photo work for the company.

After many meetings and 'ever lasting' (Planning Tribunal) hearings a mining license for an 'open pit' on Martha Hill was issued, for a defined pit perimeter and depth. (The prospecting indicated reserves of gold and silver in this pit were to the value of $800 million). The rest is history by now and with further bullion reserves confirmed, below the original M.L. depth, a further license was obtained, some 50m deeper and extending the pit perimeter also. (Once mining was approved, I personally was convinced, that further in depth prospecting would be undertaken in the pit and a new Mining license applied for, if warranted).

A succession of Mine Managers after Roger Craddock (who opened the pit) and several company changes have occurred, the operation on the Hill will be nearing its end within a few years from now. Despite some local (and further afield) opposition to the mining operations, I feel that Waihi as a whole has benefited from the activities and prospered as a result. (A minor nationwide recession in the 80's never affected Waihi). One mining related aspect I have to mention here was the desire of the company to set up an information office in town. In talking one day with the company management and the issue being raised I said, "I know just the person to do this", (my second wife to be), Doreen McLeod." They agreed to interview her, as soon as she returned from a tramping trip she was on. She was interviewed got the job, and over the years proved her worth. From a small beginning in a vacated shop up Seddon Street, manned by Doreen it has grown to the purpose built information and education unit with some six staff currently situated on Moresby Ave/Savage Road corner.

One incident at the first information centre in Seddon Street is worth recording. Among other displays, there was also a twenty minute video about the project, which was put on, on request. One day a group of 'Black Power' gang members came in, patched leather jackets and sunglasses on, and the following occurred:

Black Power: "What you got to show us hey?"

Doreen: "Apart from the titled wall displays, I also can show you a video. Would you like me to put it on?"

Black Power: "Yeah man, cool!"

Doreen: Starts video and offers chairs to them.

Black Power: After a while are not watching the video anymore.

Doreen: Turns off the video.

Black Power: "Hey man, you can't do that."

Doreen: "Well, you obviously were not interested in it and not watching the video."

Black Power: "Yeah we'll watch!" And they did to the end. Thanking Doreen when leaving.

This is a good example of Doreen's 'people skills'. But back to mining, some general remarks in the 'lead up' to it. Already at the prospecting stage, the wildest rumours circulated in the town. Amongst them, 'that the whole CBD would be taken in by the pit.' Or even worse: 'the whole town would be shifted to allow for the pit.'