Build up the north, or bust

The northern half of Australia and remote mining communities of the Pilbara are fundamentally underdeveloped. Daniel Hall writes

A recently aired ABC Television Four Corners programme, broadcast Monday 18 August, has drawn attention to the critical need for planning and the provision of infrastructure in Port Hedland and the broader Pilbara region.

The report has also ignited a debate over the mining industry’s commitment to the communities which they operate in and around.

The report aired on the Four Corners programme paints a picture of high levels of drug and alcohol abuse within the remote Pilbara communities, and desperate housing and infrastructure shortages.

All the while the Pilbara is the leading resources region in Australia, accounting for 63% of the value of WA minerals and energy production in 2007 and generating royalties of more than $1.5 billion.

The numbers just don’t add up for the communities that are dependant on the mining boom.

The current debate over community infrastructure in remote mining towns in the northern half of Australia will be pivotal in deciding whether the industry will continue in its boom and bust ways of the 20th century, or move into a period of sustained growth.

Exporting the huge volumes of commodities from remote mines and ports, as seen in the Pilbara, could grow progressively harder when there is limited infrastructure and housing to support the significant labour pools needed to drive production.

Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) executive director — operations — Graeme Rowley, speaking with me before first ore on ship was achieved by the company in May, said the northern half of Australia is fundamentally underdeveloped, and the mining communities are widely seen as short term mining towns.

“The remote mining towns have been limited in terms of infrastructure and community development,” he told Australian Mining.

“There is little in the northern half of Australia in terms of opportunities … If we don’t change this we will continue to treat mining as a boom and bust industry. The demand for developments such as this mean there is unprecedented opportunity to provide housing so that miners, suppliers, contractors and engineers are encouraged to put their roots down and develop the opportunities of tomorrow.”

FMG has recently put their money where their mouth is in regards to this issue.

The first home of 250 houses for Port and South Hedland was officially opened at a ceremony in South Hedland last month, as part of the Fortescue Housing Trust’s plans to encourage home ownership, and therefore Pilbara permanency, among its employees.

According to the company, as construction of the houses is progressively completed the homes will be made available for rent at nominal rates to Fortescue’s Port Hedland rail, port and community relations employees.

The Fortescue Housing Trust’s Hedland home ownership scheme aims to encourage employees to take an option to purchase, which enables long-term employees to purchase their houses at pre-agreed rates.

With the ‘wave of growth’ expected to continue in the Pilbara over the next decade, urgent action is required to address the widening gap between supply and demand of health, education, land and accommodation, according to CME chief executive Reg Howard Smith.

“The provision of infrastructure for regional communities such as the Pilbara is critical to making them a sustainable place to live and work,” he said.

“There are significant gaps impacting the liveability of the Pilbara townships, which underlines the need for industry and Government to work together to deliver positive change in the region.

“The issues which need to be addressed are long term challenges for the community, and require a dedicated and coordinated response.

“Industry is already contributing a significant amount of social investment into the region. However, the task is too great and multifaceted for individual companies to manage alone.”

The large Fly-In, Fly-Out (FIFO) labour force of the Pilbara is a critical issue when considering support for the local Pilbara communities.

FIFO workers, according to the ABC programme, are separated from the regular expectations, responsibilities and social groups that they would find in their own home towns, which has the potential to increase anti-social behaviour.

Impacts from initiatives such as Fly-In, Fly-Out (FIFO) are a focus for resource companies operating in the region, according to Howard-Smith.

“FIFO has become a key strategy in attracting skilled workers into the State’s resource sector and it is critical in making many remote mining operations viable, but it presents its own challenges,” he said.

The year’s Australian Mining Prospect Awards Community Partnership of the Year category is sure to be of great interest as the mainstream media once again turns the spotlight on the large miners’ commitment to local community.

Sponsored by CAPS Australia, the Community Partnership of the Year category aims to highlight the innovative ways that mining companies are meeting community needs and contributing towards solving community problems.

The category allows mining companies to showcase their best practice models for partnership with the community, and allows the companies to reveal the plans that they have put in place to ensure that some of the wealth of the region remains within the community long after the last mine has been decommissioned.

For all editorial enquiries contact Daniel Hall on 02 9422 2352, or email ozmining@reedbusiness.com.au. To subscribe to Australian Mining for FREE, call reader services on 1300 360 126.

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