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Australian iron ore for good and ill

By Michael Evans - 27 Jun 2011 22:33:0 GMT
Australian iron ore for good and ill

Australia is a vast country, with so many natural resources that most have not yet been discovered. After gold was found in the 1840s, within 50 years the population more than doubled as people flooded into the country with dreams of instant wealth.

Today's major wealth producing mineral of Australia is the far less glamorous iron ore. Almost 93% of the country's identified iron ore resources (totalling 64 billion tonnes) are found in Western Australia.

Iron ore was first exploited in the 1960s and as is normal practice, all the major Australian iron ore mines are open cast. Once the surface soil has been removed, massive machines then extract the iron-bearing rock before it is hauled from the working faces to crushing and screening plants using trucks that can carry over 300 tonnes at a time.

Following this initial processing the ore is then transported for further treatment and blending to port sites in trains hauled by up to three locomotives and consisting of over 250 wagons. Trains of this size are over 2 kilometres long and contain loads in excess of 25,000 tonnes.

The biggest single open cast iron ore mine in the world is the Mount Whaleback Mine in Western Australia's Pilbara district, about 1,300 kilometres north of Perth. The mine is 5.5 kilometres in length, has a width of up to 2 kilometres and will eventually reach a depth of 0.5 kilometres.

The extracted ore is transported 426 kilometres by rail to Port Hedland, which in spite of its relative remoteness is the highest tonnage port in Australia. Since the first ship left for Japan on 27 May 1966 with 24,900 tonnes of ore, the harbour has been improved to allow ships of over 250,000 tonnes to use the port. The average loading time for a ship is 30 hours and 800 ships are now loaded annually at Port Hedland.

Australia's iron ore is much sought after by the growing industrial might of China and last year 70% of the exports from Port Hedland were destined for China, up from 45% in 2005. In the current financial year Australia's iron ore export volumes are expected to increase by 8% to 437 million tonnes, but there is concern in many quarters that with China being the major market, all the eggs are effectively in one basket.

Environmentalists are also concerned. Although Australia is a vast country with plenty of space, these huge open cast mining operations leave scars and also produce enormous quantities of 'spoil', but with an average annual temperature of 33.3° C (91.8° F) and a total rainfall of about 12 inches, this region has tended to be regarded as an inhospitable desert region of no consequence.

However, the region is also home to a whole group of Indigenous Australians and it has an important place in their Dreamtime legend.

Commercial interests are important, both to investors and to the country's economy, but should they be allowed to eclipse environmental and cultural issues, however insignificant these issues might outwardly appear?

Top Image Credit: © Andriy Solovyov