Inspiring the next generation of Indigenous mining

Atlas Iron expects to benefit local communities through employment at Miralga Creek.

When Atlas Iron awarded a joint venture mining contract at its Miralga Creek iron ore mine in Western Australia to East West Pilbara (EWP) and Ozland, it was considered a landmark achievement.

EWP is an Indigenous business connected with Atlas Iron through its Traditional Owner group Nyamal, while Ozland is a private local drilling and blasting services business.

The contract will see EWP and Ozland work together to complete load and haul, and drill and blast services at Miralga Creek, which is due to haul first ore by April 2022.

EWP’s involvement is the culmination of generations of work and solidified the belief EWP managing director Troy Eaton had in himself, his lineage and the capabilities of the wider Nyamal community, with which the mine is based.

Indigenous people haven’t always been given a fair go in the mining industry, while their expertise has often been undermined.

Eaton’s grandfather, Nyamal man and Indigenous pioneer Ernest Mitchell was rejected and called ‘illiterate’ when he looked for commercial mining opportunities. But Eaton, a proud Nyamal man himself, isn’t resentful about the past – he just wants to set a new precedent going forward.

“It’s hard work, you have to be proactive, and if you’re true to what you need to do, hard work pays off,” Eaton says. “I’ve got to be that beacon now. I don’t want my future generations sitting down thinking that everything comes to you.”

Keen to pave the way for his contemporaries, Eaton also wants to show the mining industry the true potential of his community and First Nations peoples at large.

“My background is mining. As you can obviously be aware if you look out – the Pilbara is mining country, so why are we not doing it? Why are we not part of it? Why are we not at the forefront of it?” Eaton says.

“That’s why we do the trailblazing work now but it’s more or less our ownership. It’s not a myth anymore, we can actually feel that this is real, we can touch it, we can do what we do with it, protect what we need to protect and set it up now. I’m not here just for a water truck which they’ve always thrown at us, I’m here for part of this Pilbara pie and iron ore.”

Atlas Iron hopes to establish a long-term relationship with the EWP and Ozland JV.

EWP represents more than just Eaton and his wife Denise Smith, and before completing any work under the company’s name, Eaton goes through a process of consultation with those around him.

“East West Pilbara group is built not just for my community in Nyamal, but I’ve got elders from other groups as well and families to be engaged with us,” he says. “That’s how our communities up there interact – through our cultural governance and our protocols, so I’ve just got to balance it out.

“I always engage with my Aboriginal community, which is Nyamal. As long as I get the okay from those guys, which I have to do a lot of consulting with as well.”

The level of communication and shared interest underpinning an organisation like EWP, let alone the workings it is associated with, represents an understanding and assuredness not seen in many mining endeavours.

“They give me my blessing, I’m ready to rock and roll. If they tell me, ‘You can’t do this’, I stop,” Eaton continues.

Miralga Creek is an extension of the Abydos mine and is expected to produce more than eight million tonnes of ore across a four-to-five-year life.

Atlas expects to employ around 300 people directly and indirectly at Miralga Creek. Atlas chief executive officer Sanjiv Manchanda says it’s critical the company puts the faith and investment in EWP and Ozland to ensure a long-term relationship.

“From our perspective, we don’t want this to be a one-shot wonder. Our focus has to be, how do we sustain that and make sure that after this project – all mines have a finite life – what after this comes to an end?” he says.

“Not only does EWP and Ozland have to think about that, we also have to make sure this relationship and this model is strengthened further and grows further, whether it’s some other mines sites or the same mine sites.”

Manchanda says the Miralga Creek project is progressing well towards the goal to haul first ore next year.

“We are well on track. We also recently got all of the approvals and everything we needed – the last tick of the box was from the exporting port where they actually make sure the material is there and tested,” Manchanda says. “So really there are no fatal flaws as we see except of course the uncertainty of wet weather risk.” 

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