Back in black in the Bowen

From modest beginning to coal reserve powerhouse, the Bowen Basin has come a long way in a short time. Fran Molloy writes for Australian Mining.

If you’re involved in mining in Australia, you’ve heard of the Bowen Basin, in Central Queensland, a 60,000 square kilometre triangle which is now Australia’s largest coal reserve.

The area is rife with commercially significant black coal, with about 75 percent of the deposits of Permian (280 Ma) age and about half of the coal seams shallow enough for open-cut mining.

The Bowen Basin extends about 600km from the area around the town of Collinsville in the north, through the regions near Moranbah, Dysart , Emerald and Blackwater down to Moura and Theodore at the southern end of the Basin and traverses nine local government areas. Major coastal towns nearby include Mackay and Rockhampton.

Geological connections include the Surat Basin and the Gunnedah and Sydney Basins in New South Wales.

And while many of the 34 currently operational mines have only opened in the last decade, the Bowen Basin has been a major force in Australia’s mining history for well over a century.

There are currently 34 operational coal mines in the Bowen, which together extract over 100 million tonnes or coal a year. That’s about 83 per cent of Queensland’s coal production — and the state’s most important export commodity.

The 1800s

In 1845, the German-born explorer Ludwig Leichhardt and his party were the first Europeans known to pass through the area and Leichhardt noted in his journals that he had observed “beds of coal indistinguishable from those on the Hunter at Newcastle,” near the current location of the town of Blackwater.

European settlers made their way into the area in the 1860s, establishing pastoral runs, with beef cattle farming continuing to be a major industry in the region for over 150 years.

When copper — and particularly, gold — were found in the area, prospectors arrived in droves. In the subsequent decades, battles between Chinese and European miners were documented and the area became Australia’s own Wild West Queensland.

Gemstones were found in several areas around the town of Emerald and Gracemere Lake.

Local historians insist that the town of Emerald was named for the green grass of local grazing properties; however, the towns of Sapphire and Rubyvale were definitely established because of local gemstone miners.

Gemstone mining was usually done by small-scale prospectors and conditions were very primitive.

Coal-mining, now the focus of mining in the region, was not a significant activity in the 1800s. The first coal deposit was found accidentally, at Blair Athol homestead in 1864, when a well-borer digging for water struck coal just 20 metres below the surface.

Although several mine-shafts were dug in the region, New South Wales remained the focus of most coal-mining in the 1800’s, with Newcastle the premier coal port supplying the lucrative coastal steamship trade.

Rail was introduced into Queensland in 1865, initially with wood-fuelled engines, but as demand increased, coal became more attractive. But although extensive deposits existed in the Bowen Basin, coal-mining did not commence until the 1950s.

1900-50

Mining operations continued in various sites across the Bowen Basin, with gold and copper mining particularly productive.

The Mount Morgan gold-mine, part-owned by colourful QLD entrepreneur William Knox D’Arcy, operated from the beginning of the century and was one of the state’s most productive gold mines.

And although Mount Morgan mine closed in the early 1980’s, it continues to earn a substantial revenue as a tourist attraction. Mount Coolon was also a significant gold-mining operation in the area.

Coal mining operations across the Bowen were generally quite small in comparison to Australia’s major coalfields in the south and west of the country and were aimed at servicing local demand. The large collieries in the south had an iron grip on the lucrative coal market.

The establishment of the State-owned Bowen Consolidated Mines in 1919 led to the establishment of the settlement of Moongunyah, the local indigenous word for coal; although by 1921, local politician Charles Collins managed to have the town renamed to Collinsville.

The Collinsville Coalface Experience, located at the Collinsville Worker’s Club, has an extensive museum with detailed exhibits of the early days of coal-mining in the area.

Their records show that much of the mining technology of the time was hand-operated, with pit ponies an essential part of mine life. Miners worked in pairs and were paid as contractors, with each pair mining up to 22 tonnes of coal each day.

Miners would hand-drill shot holes into the coal face to access underground deposits. The shot holes were loaded with explosives and blasted, and the loose coal shovelled into skips that were pulled to the surface by pit ponies — if they were lucky; many miners moved coal to the surface by hand.

Many colourful events occurred in the small mining communities of the area.

In 1927, the Mount Morgan syndicate went into liquidation after decades of mining gold, silver and copper; mainly because the owners were using the profits to fund other unsuccessful enterprises. Recognising the potential of the mine, other entrepreneurs bought the site out and in 1929, the mine started open-cut excavation.

By 1935, Alan Trengrove, author of ‘Discovery,’ estimated that around 100,000 tonnes of coal had been extracted from the independent mines in the Bowen Basin, but the onset of the Great Depression limited investment in the industry.

Strikes increased in intensity between the 1930s and 1950s. A three months miners strike in Collinsville in 1946 attracted nationwide publicity and in 1952, over a hundred miners joined a ‘staydown’ strike. The mine manager turned off the fan and turned out the lights but miners stayed put, 120 metres underground, for nine days.

Mechanisation came to the mines in the 1950s, changing the way the work was performed.

Seven men were killed in a mine accident in Collinsville in October 1954, highlighting the need for better safety equipment. Around forty miners were working underground at the time.

1960s

A critical part of the Bowen Basin’s history occurred in the late 1950s when US geologist Richard Ellett was engaged by Utah Construction and Mining company to start mineral exploration for a commodity that could be used for large-scale mining operations, in particular, iron-ore and coking coal.

Anticipating a rapid increase in demand for coal imports from Japan, Utah was granted a prospecting area of about 1750 square kilometres around Blackwater and by 1967, extensive open-cut mining had commenced at Blackwater and promising discoveries of future coal seams identified.

By 1964, Utah were setting up a joint venture with Mitsubishi, to improve their ability to trade in Japan. In 1966, the two companies set up Central Queensland Coal Associates (CQCA) and, in an event that Trengrove called “the greatest single coup in the history of Queensland mining,” managed to gain a franchise over a 6,330 square kilometre region, including much of the coal territory for 200 kilometres to the north of Blackwater.

In 1965, a ten-year deal with Japanese steel industry executives secured the future of Utah’s mining investment and in agreements signed with the Queensland government, had secured rights to an estimated 2000 million tonnes of coal over an 84-year period.

Coal producers across the country were affected by the pricing arrangements that CQCA had agreed to, with Japanese buyers bidding other producers down. However CQCA insisted their capital investment in mining could not go ahead without these long-term low-priced deals.

1970s

Plans were soon underway for four mines, with Goonyella and Peak Downs opening in the early 70s, then Saraji and Norwich Park.

Once Utah had demonstrated the possibility for large-scale export mining in the region, other mining companies took interest in the Bowen Basin.

“Utah had triumphed by entering the Bowen Basin at a time when coal prices were low and few other companies were interested in the area; it’s timing was immaculate,” says Alan Trengrove.

The population of the southern part of the Bowen Basin in the early 1960s was estimated at around 300; within fifteen years, an estimated 13,000 inhabitants occupied the towns of Blackwater, Moranbah and Dysart.

In 1976, Utah International merged with General Electric.

80s to present

In 1983, BHP paid an estimated $2.42 billion to purchase UTAH coal. “That was one of the most important events in the Bowen Basin’s history,” says Peter Lynch, a long-term Bowen Basin mining executive who now heads Waratah Coal. “It was the largest single trading transaction in Australia’s history to that point.”

The recent history of the region has been that of hugely successful mining ventures.

By the 21s century, the area had grown significantly and there are now 34 operational coal mines extracting over 100 million tonnes annually.

The area now supports fifteen local communities with a combined population of around 42,000.

The future

The colourful history of the Bowen Basin has been based on an ongoing development of lush and extensive natural resources.

As the technology improves hugely and exponentially and long-term mining heads down the path of sustainability, the Basin seems set to continue its ever-more prosperous trajectory.

* Fran Molloy is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and numerous top Australian magazines.

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