It is well established that Victoria’s mining prospects are receiving a surge in interest, with a number of projects in the pipeline that are ready to move the state into new possibilities as one of the country’s vital mining jurisdictions. Nickolas Zakharia writes.
In 1851, Victoria’s first major gold discovery was made in the town of Ballarat.
The find set off what became Victoria’s gold rush that continued late into the 1860s, pushing the state to new economic heights and shaping its future with an explosion of wealth and migration.
More than 150 years later, a new wave of mining activity is beginning to sprout across the state.
Historically, gold has remained Victoria’s most attractive mineral resource – and often receives the most attention.
And that’s justified, with assets such as Kirkland Lake Gold’s Fosterville mine in Bendigo producing 619,366 ounces of gold last year alone.
Victoria’s northern and western goldfields have remained an attractive venture for a number of keen-eyed investors looking to create their own Fosterville.
What often goes unnoticed, however, is the state’s plentiful mineral sands resources (zircon, rutile and ilmenite), which are used for a variety of end products, including ceramics, electric vehicles, wind turbines and mobile phones.
The state’s mineral sands endowment consists of an estimated 350 million tonnes of coarse grained, strandline deposits plus an additional three billion tonnes of ﬁne grained, WIM style deposits.
Regardless of what the commodity is, the state’s mining sector has well and truly revived itself. Employment in the state’s industry rose by 41 per cent in 2018-19, providing a total of 16,000 jobs.
That number could grow even higher thanks to a new wave of exploration projects and mining aspirants that are preparing for the future.
On the radar
Victoria’s Earth Resources Regulation has worked hard to enhance the state’s mining sector, with a number of new projects in the pipeline.
Two years ago, the state government announced its five-year state plan for mining, the State of Discovery: Mineral Resources Strategy 2018–2023.
The Victorian Government’s head of resources John Krbaleski says the plan has been a resounding success so far.
“It’s been going gangbusters,” he tells Australian Mining. “It’s great to see Victoria being noticed and back on the radar, and guided by a strategy with a clear vision – growing a responsible sector that’s valued by the community.
“I think what we’re seeing is a great set of numbers that are delivering on the back of that vision.”
The plan lists five key action areas, including confident communities and responsible explorers; advancing geoscience and encouraging mineral exploration and development; Victoria as a global mining hub; improve regulation practice and industry compliance; and deliver modern, fit-for-purpose laws.
“We’re seeing investment, jobs, wealth and opportunities and importantly all of that is being delivered to regional Victoria and its building that social licence,” Krbaleski says.
A record $36 million was spent on exploration in Victoria during the March 2020 quarter.
The regulator is currently processing more than 400 applications for new minerals licenses, renewals, transfers and variations.
“We have a $220 million dollars exploration investment target in our five-year strategy and we’re well on our way to deliver that,” Krbaleski says.
“We’re seeing there are plenty of reasons for the sector to be interested in Victoria: that high prospect for gold, those new opportunities in copper, our world-class geoscience program, our established infrastructure, our skilled workforce and our stable investment environment.”
Victoria’s mining sector features a mostly local workforce, which has proven to be COVID-19 resilient, according to Krbaleski.
“We’re different to other jurisdictions where mining involves a lot more FIFO (fly-in, fly out). For us, it’s communities that see that benefit locally.
“Today it’s in the order of 16,000 people employed by the sector in Victoria. Given that strong pipeline, the future is very bright.”
As for the interest in gold resources, Krbaleski says surging prices for the precious metal are a welcome addition.
“We couldn’t have foreseen the drilling results that have come through in Stavely, and also Fosterville’s continued success,” he says.
“Gold and copper have got the attention, but I think the unsung potential hero here is also mineral sands.”
World-class mineral sands
Kalbar Operations is one of the state’s mining hopefuls that is aiming to open a new chapter in Victorian mineral sands mining.
Its Fingerboards project, which is currently seeking government approval, has the potential to become a major supplier of mineral sands for the state.
The project is situated within the Glenaladale deposit, located 20 kilometres northwest of Bairnsdale in the East Gippsland region. The site is considered one of the most valuable mineral sands deposits, globally.
The Glenaladale deposit, discovered by Rio Tinto in 2004, was the first significant mineral sands discovery in East Gippsland.
Kalbar acquired the tenements from Rio Tinto in 2013 and has been advancing the site towards production ever since.
The company proposes to extract 170 million tonnes of ore from the Fingerboards project to produce an estimated eight million tonnes of heavy mineral concentrate during the project’s 15-20 years of operation. The Fingerboards project is, however, just a small part of the much larger Glenaladale deposit.
Not only will the project provide jobs for Victorians, but it will also help strengthen Australia’s position as a major supplier of mineral sands.
Mineral sands are mostly used in ceramics but are increasingly being used in new technologies, such as electronic vehicles, wind power generators and mobile phones.
“The Fingerboards project contains over two million tonnes of zircon at the highest inground grades in the world,” Kalbar Operations chief executive officer Jozsef Patarica tells Australian Mining.
“The project has the potential to supply about 10 per cent of the world’s zircon requirements over the 15-20 year life of the mine.”
Kalbar’s mineral sands resource is made up of zircon and titanium dioxide. It also features a number of rare earth minerals such as monazite and xenotime.
Rather than being held down by a single major product type, mineral sands are used in a variety of different products, such as toothpaste, tiles, medical equipment, wind power generators and cosmetics.
Patarica also anticipates that demand for rare earths minerals will continue to increase with the uptake of new technologies, such as electric vehicles and other developments in green energy.
“There’s already a strong demand for a lot of the rare earth elements that we have in our Fingerboards deposit and that will only increase over the period of time that this mine will be operating,” he says
Iluka Resources’ Jacinth-Ambrosia mine in South Australia, which first started producing in 2009, is currently the largest zircon operation in Australia.
For Patarica, the Fingerboards project could potentially carry the baton from the Jacinth-Ambrosia mine as Australia’s leading supplier of zircon.
He expects approvals for the project to be in place by early 2021 before operations commence midway through 2022, starting a new era in mineral sands for Victorian mining.
A unique discovery
The Stavely project in western Victoria represents the state’s potential in the gold-copper space.
Just over a year ago, Stavely Minerals discovered a shallow, high-grade copper-gold-silver mineralisation, now known as the Cayley lode, at the project’s Thursday’s Gossan prospect.
Stavely made the discovery after its first diamond hole drilled targeted mineralisation in an area known as the Ultramafic Contact Fault, resulting in grades of up to 40 per cent copper within a 32-metre wide high-grade zone.
The Cayley Lode is named after Geological Survey of Victoria senior geologist Ross Cayley, who was part of a previous collaborative Stavely project undertaken by Geoscience Australia and the Geological Survey of Victoria between 2013 and 2017.
Still early into its exploration lifecycle, the Stavely project will receive a JORC mineral resource estimate this year, but the early results are indicating a promising find.
Stavely Minerals executive chairman and managing director Chris Cairns says the project’s tenements have a unique geological composition.
“It’s unusual in the context that most of the mining projects in Victoria are mineral sands or gold whereas the this is a porphyry-related copper-gold silver system,” he tells Australian Mining.
“They’re quite large systems mineralised on multiple structures and one of the key attributes is that they’re driven by porphyry at depth.
“The key difference for this type of system is that it is very large relative to the other mineral systems in Victoria.”
Porphyry is a type of igneous rock, and the find at the Cayley Lode resembles the Magma mine in Arizona, United States, which is located above the Resolution porphyry copper deposit. That deposit has an inferred resolution of almost two billion tonnes at 1.5 per cent copper.
Stavely credits the initial findings by the Geological Survey of Victoria for their interest in the area and has maintained a strong relationship with the Victorian Government.
A total of $1.5 million in co-funding grants, along with two retention licenses have so far been provided to the company by the state government.
“That just gives us the security of tenure to do the sorts of detailed drilling programs and metallurgy geotechnical work that we must do to take the projects and demonstrate the viability towards applying for a mining lease,” Cairns says.
Cairns believes that if the project is developed, hundreds of local jobs could be created in Victoria.
“If we were able to demonstrate that this project was viable, we’re looking at jobs within the hundreds of wide-scale and highly paid jobs. It would be our intention to hire locally so we’re not doing any fly-in, fly-out type workforce,” he says.
“It would be a very, very significant contribution to the local economy and a good way to encourage families to stay in regional.
“Our objective is to demonstrate a multi-decade underground operation that really creates long-term values for the district and for shareholders.”
This article will appear in the October issue of Australian Mining.