The dish on Northparkes mine

The industrialised world has copper to thank for its development, and the element’s long-term outlook remains undeniably convincing.

According to BHP robust copper supply growth is expected to result in a more balanced market in the short term, but the longer term outlook suggests that on average 1 million tonnes of new supply will be required to keep up with demand.

Meaning prices will need to remain high enough to stimulate the development of lower grade, higher cost supplies.

Australian Mining recently visited Rio Tinto's Northparkes underground copper and gold mine which is located about 25km from the New South Wales town of Parkes.

Northparkes employs about 350 local people from the Parkes, Peak Hill and Forbes areas, only bringing in people from further afield when specialised expertise is required.

There are also approximately 400 contractors on site.

“We’re very proudly residential, and that’s part of what attracted me to Northparkes, it’s a place where I can work in a successful mine with a great future and I can go home every night, that’s what I love about Northparkes,” Stephanie Loader Northparkes managing director stated.

Parkes Shire Council mayor Ken Keith, told Australian Mining that the Northparkes mine underpinned the local economy throughout the drought, and that the facility has developed a good relationship with the community.

Deputy mayor of the Parkes Council Alan Ward attributed the healthy relationship between Northparkes and the community to the residential status of the mine and the fact that it is not a fly-in, fly-out operation.

Keith explained that the location of the mine means the 350 plus employees can live and participate in the local area which attracts families.

Northparkes' ore processing technical superintendent Danica Clarke agreed, saying Parkes is a really good community, particularly in comparison to places like Port Hedland where she was based previously.

“Parkes has other things like the Dish, farms and the transport hub, there are a lot of other things going on it’s not solely mining, so when you end up in a mining downturn, which does happen, the town doesn’t fall apart because people are laid off,” Clarke said.

Open for businessnorthparkes-open-day.bmp

This month was Northparkes’ open day, where everyone was welcome to go along and see for themselves what is going on onsite.

The open day featured train, walking and bus tours around the site so the public could learn about the copper mining process and the facility.

Loader explained that days like this are extremely important for team morale.

“It’s so important because it is the one day where everybody can bring their family and friends inside the gate, we have a lot of photos and ways to show people what we’re doing but this is how we can say ‘this is the mill that I work in every day, these are the pieces of machinery I operate, or work around’.”

Loader said the open day also provides a reality for the public, cutting through perceptions of what the environment and people are like.

“We have a huge diversity of people from gender and nationality perspectives, so if people do have any unhelpful myths about mining these events help to dispel them,” she said.

“It is the one day where we open the gates and welcome everybody’s families, neighbours, in-laws, cousins; we really encourage everyone to bring their family out here, to show them what we’re doing.”

Northparkes-Daniel-and-alex.JPGNorthparkes engineer Daniel Rawsthorne, [pictured with his son Alex] said community open days like this one are a good opportunity for him to show his family what he does and for the community to “go beyond the gates” and learn more about the operations.

Block cave mining

Northparkes is the only operational block caving mine in the country, with Rio’s Argyle diamond mine in Western Australia pinned to be utilising the technique shortly.

Ward said that the block cave mining technique being used onsite is attracting people from around the world for training, including employees from Rio’s Mongolian Oyu Tolgoi mine.


But the technique doesn’t come without its risks.

In 1999 four men were killed whilst working underground at Northparkes as a result of an irregularity in the block caving method; a powerful gust of air blasted its way along the access tunnel, causing rock-falls and a truck to overturn, crushing the men.

Since then a lot has been done to perfect the block caving technique which involves the controlled collapse of ore from under its own weight into specially-designed chutes for collection. The ore is then brought to the surface for processing.

"Northparkes was the first mine in Australia to use block caving, starting 15 years ago. Since then we have refined the method and it is now in its third generation,” Loader said.

“It has given us improvements in safety, productivity and a reduction in operating costs. Our expert knowledge and capability makes our mine an ideal location for a state-of-the-art training complex."

Former Rio Tinto copper chief executive Andrew Harding has previously said that block caving is a safer technique for large scale mining.

"Block cave mining is safer, more cost-effective and can be done on a much larger scale than traditional underground mining methods. It requires highly specialised skills, and this new centre will cement our leadership in developing and operating block cave mines as we move to the next generation of orebodies,” Harding said.

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Exploring Northparkes’ ore bodies

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Northparkes has two ore bodies; E26 was a smaller but higher grade deposit and when completed delivered about $2 billion in value.

The second ore body, E48 is larger but of lower ore grade, it is about 280 metres in diameter and about one kilometre deep.

Currently about 6 million tonnes comes out from the underground mine every year.

Noel Hugget, planning and scheduling superintendent at the Northparkes facility explained that the shaft is about 540 metres deep and there are two skip bins continuously travelling up and down the 60 metre high headframe.

Each skip takes about 70 seconds to travel from bottom to top and carries about 16 tonnes of ore; almost 51 loads are completed per hour making approximately 18000 tonne of ore mined per day.

The site itself is about 6000 hectares, of which only 1600 hectares is used by the mining lease and another 3000 hectares is used for cropping.

On the mining block about 10 000 trees are planted in corridors ever year, from the east edge of the mine to the west so wildlife can safely move around the site, it also forms a wind break for the farmland.

Northparkes and Rio’s cost cuts 

Following Rio’s recent $3 billion loss, the company’s new CEO Sam Walsh announced a radical cost cutting regime; Loader told Australian Mining it will affect everyone at Rio in some way.

“It will affect us all across the board, the context for us is we are a good operation and we’re in a healthy financial state at the moment and we’re also in pretty good times.

“Internally over the past couple of weeks we’ve been talking about what we need to do to prepare ourselves to be just as successful in five or ten years time,” she said.

“Currently we’re looking at another 20 years mine life, our published mine life is 2024 and we’re working pretty hard to get that through to 2032 and beyond.

“We’re in a great state and we’re a well run business.”

Loader said that Northparkes has the resources and the knowhow to determine what needs to be done over the next two to three years to ensure the site receives future investment.

Robotic technology

The theme of this year’s open day was technology and in today’s market place finding operational efficiencies is more important than ever, Loader explained.

“There are things we have been doing or have done; we ask why are we doing things like that? Maybe there is a better way?” Loader said.

Many mine sites around Australia are working on implementing automated machinery and processes on site, something that has been taking place for years in manufacturing.

Machinery Automation and Robotics [MAR] have been working with Rio Tinto to develop the new MAR Robotic Idler Change-out which is able to replace idlers on loaded, operational conveyors.

“This machine is a brainchild of people in Northparkes, this is somebody in Northparkes thinking about a better way of doing something, that gets people away that improves productivity,” Loader said.

With three kilometres of overland conveyor and 6 kilometres of conveyor belt, automating the idler change out process is set to add a large competitive and safety advantage to Northparkes’ operation.

“It enables us to change out idlers without shutting down the conveyor.

“Because it is a robot it gets people away from doing pretty difficult tasks,” she said.

“As an added bonus we don’t have to shut down the conveyor while we’re doing this work, and we have kilometres of conveyors so this is fantastic for us.

“We’ve fully funded the operational version.”

She said Idler Change-out robot will be operational onsite in April 2013.

Northparkes’ women

northparkes-stef-loader.jpgWomen make up about 17 to 18 per cent of the Northparkes workforce, with Stef Loader at the helm and a number of strong and capable females across all divisions, including OH&S, metallurgy, exploration, environmental management and engineering.

Loader said that this figure could be improved.

“It’s not bad, but it could be better. There are a number of things we’re doing to increase that balance and attract a wider variety of people to work at Northparkes,” Loader said.

Strategies include implementing models of employment that are less than full time and getting the word out there.

“There are still these mythologies out there about who can work in mining, and what it is like to work in mining.

“We have a number of senior women here at Northparkes, and have had for quite some time, we need to get those women out there to talk about what they do,” she said.

northparkes-danika.bmpNorthparkes' ore processing technical superintendent Danica Clarke told Australian Mining that women do really well in mining, and if a female has the drive and the passion they will succeed in the industry.

“I love it, you have to be able to stand up for yourself because it still is a male dominated industry and it can often be a hard place to work but I think it is a really good career,” Clarke said.

She added that working in a male dominated industry has had its ups and downs.

“It’s been an interesting journey, some men will respect you whether you’re male or female it on your merits,” she said.

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