The mining region in Western Australia’s quiet corner

An autonomous truck at the WesTrac Technology Training Centre in Collie.

As demand for raw minerals to manufacture electric batteries increases, the South West region is quickly establishing itself as a sleeping giant of the Western Australian resources sector. 

When people think of the South West region of Western Australia it brings up images of a popular tourism destination.

Margaret River’s vineyards and well-known surfing breaks, the Busselton Jetty and for those who live in Perth, heading ‘Down South’ presents an opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.

Little do these holiday makers know that the South West is now making a name for itself as a heavyweight in the Western Australian mining and resources sector.

Companies with operations in the South West include Iluka Resources, Talison Lithium, Alcoa, Tronox, Doral Mineral Sands, Griffin Coal, CalEnergy Resources, Newmont, Mineral Resources, Albermarle, Simcoa, Premier Coal, South32 Worsley and Hexion. 

Additionally, Rio Tinto has operated an office in Busselton for the past eight years, reflecting the large number of the company’s workers who choose to base themselves in the South West.

This month, WesTrac and Rio Tinto celebrated a successful first six months of a partnership that has seen more than 100 Rio Tinto employees develop skills in cutting-edge Automated Haulage Systems (AHS) training at the WesTrac Technology Training Centre in Collie in the South West. 

The development program commenced in March and is designed specifically to prepare Rio Tinto employees for a variety of roles at the new Gudai-Darri mine in the Pilbara. 

The collaboration between WesTrac and Rio Tinto saw the creation of a tailored program to teach team members the safety fundamentals of operating within an autonomous mine site at the Collie training centre. 

According to WesTrac’s Technology Training Centre operations manager Jeremy Manuel, the program creates significant opportunities for its team members to develop skills that will continue to increase in demand at mine sites across the world, including Western Australia and the South West. 

“We are pleased this collaboration will support the local economy in Collie, with our team members accessing local goods and services during the time spent in the town to undertake the program,” Manuel says.

Chamber of Minerals and Energy Western Australia (CMEWA) industry and competitiveness manager Adreienne La Bombard says the South West has healthy reserves of key resources that are vital to the state economy and used globally – including gold, alumina, lithium, mineral sands, titanium dioxide, silicon and coal. 

“The South West region is home to around 170,000 people, which means there is a ready workforce to fill positions at operational sites,” La Bombard says. 

“In turn, resources companies have many lifestyle benefits they can offer to employees, with the South West known for its beaches, wineries, shopping options, popular cafes and some of the best restaurants in the state. 

“Operators in the South West are also able to offer workers the opportunity to live close to where they work, which is something many welcome from a family perspective. 

“For mining and resources sector workers that commute to operations elsewhere around the state for their swings, the lifestyle on offer when they return home is also attractive.”

According to CMEWA figures and factsheets, the South West region offers a healthy mix of long-standing commodities and operators that are still going strong, and also newer companies and minerals that reflect the mining ecosystem of the future, particularly with regards to battery materials. 

The diverse range of minerals and products coming out of the region includes synthetic rutile, titanium dioxide pigment, glues and binding agents, alumina, coal, gold, spodumene (lithium) and silicon.

Iluka has been mining and processing mineral sands in the region for 50 years. Alcoa has been mining and processing alumina in the state for nearly 60 years. South32’s Worsley operations started in the early 1980s and production of alumina has increased four-fold since, including a $3 billion capacity expansion a decade ago.

Simcoa has been producing silicon for global markets in the South West since the late 1980s and is Australia’s only producer of a commodity that is absolutely vital for computing and solar energy production.

La Bombard says in recent years it’s become apparent that battery minerals and materials will have a vital role to play in the South West’s future. 

“Talison Lithium and its predecessors have been mining lithium at Greenbushes since 1983 and the area is recognised as containing the world’s highest grade and largest hard rock deposit of lithium mineral spodumene,” she says. 

“Feedstock from Greenbushes will flow through to the new kid on the block, Albermarle Lithium, which is currently building a lithium hydroxide processing facility at Kemerton.”

CME’s economic factsheet data underlines just how valuable an economic contributor the mining sector is to the South West. 

Analysis of 65 member companies from the 2019-20 financial year found that Western Australia’s mining, oil and gas, energy and contractor industries contributed $2.9 billion to the South West and Peel economy, directly providing 12,351 full-time jobs for residents of the region. 

These figures include wages paid to workers who live in the South West and Peel regions, but are employed at operations outside of the region, and payments for goods and services delivered by companies headquartered in the region but undertaking work elsewhere in Western Australia.

CMEWA’s South West member companies have identified a range of key strategic priorities – including water security, energy security, transport corridors (road, rail and port), land access and approvals, waste re-use, access to skilled labour and promoting the benefits of the sector. 

“Member companies continually collaborate with government and other stakeholders in working to progress these priorities, while CME itself advocates to help achieve outcomes that allow these companies to operate safely, cost effectively and sustainably,” La Bombard says.

“There is also strong recognition among CME and its member companies of the need to promote the good work mining is doing in the South West, with one benefit being that young people and job seekers in general will better understand the range of career opportunities that are available to them in the sector.”

Alcoa Australia operations vice president Michael Gollschewski says the company is focussed on maintaining sustainable operations in the South West and Peel region where it operates.

“We acknowledge and respect the privilege of operating in an area of Western Australia characterised by jarrah forest, native flora and fauna and waterways,” he says. 

“Over decades, we have acquired considerable expertise in operating sustainably and successfully in this unique ecosystem. 

“We have worked collaboratively on key research, with government to develop a comprehensive reserve system in the northern jarrah forest, and with other land users to ensure we can continue to sustainably and successfully coexist. 

“We pride ourselves on a rehabilitation program acknowledged globally as leading practice and are proud that self-sustaining jarrah forest ecosystems thrive where we once mined.” 

La Bombard says many of CMEWA’s member companies and their employees have been immersed in the South West region for years, and relationships with supporting industry are well established.  

“These range from rail operators to the port at Bunbury, commercial water providers, large earthmoving contractors, Aboriginal and environmental consultants, and all the way down to the coffee vans that are available on site at morning tea times,” La Bombard says.

“As is the case for the whole of WA, there are very few parts of the South West economy and community that mining doesn’t touch.

“Mining is entrenched as a vital contributor to the South West community and many businesses and community organisations would be unable to thrive – and in some cases survive – without it. 

“While some people may not automatically think of mining when they think of the South West, we believe recognition of the sector’s importance to the region is growing all the time.”  

This article also appears in the October issue of Australian Mining.

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