Kalgoorlie-Boulder is one of, if not the most famous mining centre in Australia, with a golden history dating back to the 1890s. Salomae Haselgrove looks at what its future holds in the rare earths sector.
The city of Kalgoorlie-Boulder and the wider Goldfields region is still one of the most significant gold mining areas in Australia, being home to one of the country’s largest open cut mines, the Super Pit.
The historic operation started the new decade under all-Australian ownership after Northern Star Resources finalised its acquisition of a 50 per cent stake in the operation during January.
Northern Star joined Saracen Mineral Holdings, which acquired the other half stake in November 2019, as co-owners of the site.
As the famous city, which is just shy of 600 kilometres east of Perth, continues its reign as one of the world’s top gold regions, other new and exciting mining opportunities are emerging.
In December 2019, Lynas Corporation selected Kalgoorlie to host a new cracking and leaching plant for the processing of the company’s rare earth materials.
The announcement highlights Kalgoorlie’s promising future as an Australian rare earths processing hub, bringing the first step of processing materials mined from the nearby Mt Weld lathanide deposit to Australia.
Lynas also has a rare earths processing plant in Malaysia, but as the company’s vice president of production Kam Leung explains, a move to Kalgoorlie has the potential to deliver a big spin-off effect for long-term operations in the Goldfields region.
“Kalgoorlie ticked the boxes of what we wanted for our Australian site in terms of it being strategically located between Mt Weld and Fremantle Port,” Leung tells Australian Mining.
“The day after we announced we were looking for an Australian site, representatives from Kalgoorlie were in touch and invited us to come to Kalgoorlie and gave us an idea of the kind of support the city would provide Lynas with.
“The city has been very supportive and the Western Australian Government has been very supportive in providing us with assistance granting the project lead agency status, as well as the Australian Government granting us major project status.”
Lynas and Kalgoorlie-Boulder have come together as partners during the process, launching the company’s heightened presence in the town by co-investing in its future in the historic region. This investment has deeper ambitions than the financial benefits, with Lynas looking to deliver a long-term contribution to the community and town.
For example, Lynas is aiming to create a residential operation to attract more full-term residents in the Kalgoorlie-Boulder community rather than a majority fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workforce.
“This is a really long-term investment and operation for Lynas,” Leung says.
“This will create a big spin-off effect for not only our long-term operation but the businesses we engage with, such as supply of chemicals, maintenance, engineering, parts and transport.
“There is then the flow-on effect into the local Kalgoorlie economy in terms of people working and living there, sending their kids to the local school and shopping for supples.”
Kalgoorlie’s existing infrastructure and skillset in mining isn’t the only promising opportunity for Lynas’ future in the Goldfields centre, with many of Australian mining’s future leaders studying at Curtin University’s Western Australian School of Mines (WASM) and the local TAFE.
“The people graduating from the WASM and the TAFE are very well trained from two strong educational institutions,” Leung says.
“A number of our team based from Mt Weld and even our Malaysian operations are actually WASM past graduates, so we know there is a strong future workforce for us in Kalgoorlie.”
The cracking and leaching plant will create about 100 direct jobs, with other companies supporting Lynas employing more workers, as well as other industries enjoying the flow-on effect, including transport, logistics and the chemical industry.
Since the announcement of the cracking and leaching plant last year, Lynas has focussed on the design and engineering of the plant, in addition to completing environmental approvals and baseline studies for the project.
With this first stage of the project moving ahead, Lynas is considering the potential for expansion in the future.
“Cracking and leaching is the first part of the rare earths process and it does open potential doors to treat other feed materials in Kalgoorlie in future,” Leung says.
“The intention is that we will produce concentrate at Mt Weld, do the cracking and leaching in Kalgoorlie, then send it to Malaysia for the rare earths separation.
“By bringing cracking and leaching to Australia it opens up the opportunity for the next stages to potentially come here in the long-term.”
With a 25-plus-year ore reserve and the new plant coming, Kalgoorlie-Boulder will be well placed to embark on the next chapter in its rich mining and minerals processing history.
The City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder Council is excited for this opportunity to diversify its local economy and increase the number of skilled residential jobs in the historic city.
“There are so many exciting opportunities that this partnership brings about,” City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder Council chief executive officer John Walker says.
“This plant provides new education and training opportunities in future and forward-facing jobs (that) will help support the establishment of renewable energy production in Kalgoorlie-Boulder.”
Like Leung, Walker believes there is huge potential for growth in the city with the establishment of this plant, bringing not only people from the processing and rare earths sectors, but also the industries that will support the plant.
“There’s a bright future in extractive industries and the support and service industries, with key mineral commodities being gold, as well as future facing minerals like nickel, lithium, vanadium, cobalt potash and rare earths,” he says.
Gold of course, is not a new commodity for the historic city, with the other exciting development in Kalgoorlie-Boulder in 2019-20 being the Super Pit becoming 100 per cent Australian owned.
Walker says this is another reason to entice people from outside of the region to relocate to Kalgoorlie-Boulder to live and work.
“We have been very pleased to see the new joint venture partners (Northern Star and Saracen) publicly committing to working with the city and other stakeholders to make residential sites,” he says.
“The Mayor (John Bowler) and I have had some really positive conversations with the partners about this (and) there has been strong indication from Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines (KCGM) that they are committed to retaining and growing residential jobs.”
Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s forward-thinking mindset isn’t just focussed on its existing commodities like gold, battery metals and rare earths though.
Walker says the region is also open to building up the green energy sector within the area, putting this regional centre in a position to become the backbone to much of Australia’s power and metals used for the nation’s key infrastructure.
“We are working collaboratively with government and private proponents to see investment and project development in areas like renewable energy,” he says.
“(This includes) green hydrogen production, manufacturing of industrial chemicals, expanding our local recycling industry and other additional upstream processing such as solvent extraction.”
Whether it be continuing its legacy as one of the country’s top gold regions, or forging a new name as Australia’s first rare earths hub, in the case of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, west is best in the eyes of locals.
“Having the Lynas plant here in Kalgoorlie-Boulder will be a catalyst to attract similar industries that align with the Australian Government’s critical minerals strategy and the city and state’s objective for more downstream mineral processing,” Walker concludes.
“There are so many exciting opportunities that this partnership brings about and we look forward to working with all key stakeholders to further support downstream processing here in Kalgoorlie-Boulder.”
This article appears in the June edition of Australian Mining.