While the Covid-19 pandemic and a series of trade spats have brought uncertainty and negatively impacted many operations, some miners have withstood the challenges better than others.
On 30 October, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released economic data demonstrating the importance of the mining industry to the country’s economy. The data showed that while the overall economy shrank, the mining industry’s GDP increased by 4.9% in the 2019-20 period, totalling A$202bn. With a 10.4% share of the economy, this also made Australia’s mining sector the largest industry in the country, allowing it to grow its workforce and further engage communities.
When it comes to common mining challenges in the current climate, Jeremy Osborne, head of construction at insurance broker McGill and Partners, says that expansion and de-bottlenecking projects tend to “create different interfaces, and consequently different potential risks and problems, to greenfield construction activity”.
As such mining works are often in a close proximity to an existing process plant and with a number of workers on site, it could create congestion and logistical difficulties, especially in times of an easily spread respiratory virus. Osborne adds that the potential for increased hot work such as welding activity “creates additional hazards with potentially severe consequences”, proposing that a wide variety of risks can be prevented and possibly overcome with careful planning and complex logistics of responsibilities.
David Celine, managing director of remote monitoring firm Omniflex, also warns that, generally, “on large upgrade projects, where businesses have large capital budgets, opportunities to refurbish or extend the life of an existing plant equipment are often overlooked”, causing further problems for operators in the future.
BHP scraps $2.5bn Olympic Dam expansion plan
Despite a 47% increase in copper production in Q3 this year, marking the largest quarterly increase since 2015, BHP was forced to announce in October that it won’t go ahead with the planned A$2.5bn expansion of its Olympic Dam mine in South Australia.
Located 560km north of Adelaide, Olympic Dam is the fourth-largest copper deposit and the largest known single deposit of uranium in the world.
After exploratory drilling of the ore revealed less promising new deposits than expected, the company has said that it will change its strategy and proceed through “targeted debottlenecking investments, plant upgrades, and modernisation of infrastructure”.
The miner also said that it had an improved knowledge of the ore body and it will invest in existing infrastructure in the mine while continuing to study options for growth at Olympic Dam over the long term.
BHP recently changed the Olympic Dam’s production forecast from 350,000 tonnes a year to 300,000, after assessment of more than 400km of drilling samples.
Fortescue Metal group awards another contract for Iron Bridge mine
The Iron Bridge magnetite mine, located 145km south of Port Hedland in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, one of the biggest magnetite resources in the country, has successfully weathered the storm of 2020.
The mine’s operator didn’t experience dramatic losses and recently awarded a $127m order to Weir Group to provide aftermarket components for the Iron Bridge magnetite project.
The Weir order in December 2020 follows a $133m contract last year for the supply of original equipment at Iron Bridge, including Weir’s Enduron high pressure grinding rolls for dry processing of ore, which reportedly use at least 30% less energy than traditional equipment.
The Iron Bridge project, which is owned by a $2.6bn joint venture between FMG subsidiary FMG Magnetite and Formosa Steel, had its first phase developed with a capital cost of $500m.
The recent development follows Fortescue’s contract with CIMIC Group company CPB Contractors for the Iron Bridge magnetite project.
As part of the deal, CPB Contractors agreed to deliver concrete and detailed earthworks for a wet processing plant at Iron Bridge.
Rio Tinto delays the opening of its Koodaideri iron ore mine
In July 2020, UK-Australian miner Rio Tinto had to push back the start up date for its Koodaideri iron ore open-cut mine in the Pilbara region from late 2021 to early 2022 after reporting a fall in half-year profit to $3.32bn in 2020, down from $4.13bn in 2019.
The company also maintained its cost guidance for the year at $14-$15/t, as it said that the increased Covid-19 costs were offset by productivity gains, lower diesel costs, and a weaker Australian dollar in the first half of the year.
After an environmental impact assessment in March 2015, Rio Tinto later announced that the Koodaideri iron ore mine will be its most technologically advanced mine yet, featuring a solar photovoltaic plant.
The planned 34MW photovoltaic solar farm within the mine will consist of approximately 100,000 solar panels.
Albemarle Kemerton Refinery progresses with recruitment despite obstacles
After announcing plans to build the Kemerton lithium hydroxide processing plant in 2019 in the Kemerton Strategic Industrial Area in Western Australia, the company took another step forward in August 2020 with a first round of recruitment.
The site’s starting date was delayed to late 2021 in May, due to a drop in demand for batteries and electric vehicles in countries like China and the US during the coronavirus pandemic.
The site’s director, Daniel O’Shea, also revealed the cancellation of plans to build a third refinery, leading to a reduction in the number of required staff.
Despite the obstacles, Albemarle went on with its recruitment process, aiming to fill 300 positions with local workers, 200 fewer than originally planned.
Following the end of construction processes in 2022, Kemerton will process spodumene ore to produce lithium hydroxide product and a sodium sulphate by-product. The facility has a projected initial capacity of about 50,000 metric tons LCE of lithium hydroxide, expandable to 100,000 metric tons LCE over time.
Gwalia Gold mine proceeds with extension plans
Despite all odds, the A$100m the expansion of Australia’s deepest gold mine continued unaffected and is nearing completion with gold trading reaching record levels.
The extension of the Gwalia underground project in Western Australia’s northern Goldfields started in 2017, and is planned to reach a depth of 2,300m below the surface by 2031.
As part of the extension, kilometres of new ventilation have been installed by sinking large new shafts to send cool air from the surface to the miners working below, reaching a depth of 480m, with 37m more to go. Along with the ventilation upgrade, the project also involves a paste aggregate fill.
The mine produced 171,156oz of gold in the 2019-20 financial year, which is expected to increase to between 190,000oz and 200,000oz a year for the two years to June 2023.