The issue of shared infrastructure in the Pilbara never strays too far from the headlines, particularly when it comes to rail.
Despite lobbying by the Western Australian Government, the larger miners are still resistant to the idea of accommodating the juniors.
However, a new deepwater port development at Point Anketell in the region’s west could prove that multi-user infrastructure is the way of the future.
The port is being developed by a consortium of three iron ore producers; Aquila Resources, Fortescue Metals and MMC Australia Holdings.
According to Aquila’s general manager of iron ore, Russell Tipper, sufficient port access is crucial to the whole infrastructure debate.
"A lot of people focus on the question of rail access in the Pilbara, but the fact is, rail access is no good if you cannot get port access," he told Australian Mining.
"The region’s only multi-user public port at the moment is a small berth within Port Hedland.
"There are plans to expand it, but the actual harbour is fairly constrained and it will become quite congested."
The development, located 30 km east of Karratha and 10 km west of Cape Lambert, will be the west Pilbara’s first multi-user port if it is constructed.
"Anketell would represent an exit point for other iron ore producers, so it could act as an incentive to build more infrastructure, be it rail, road or pipeline," Tipper said.
"It provides an option that simply is not in the west Pilbara at the moment."
The three companies had all indentified the area as the best location to support their individual mining operations.
Aquila was looking for port access to support its proposed 30 million tonne per annum West Pilbara iron ore joint venture with American Metals and Coal.
Similarly, Fortescue needed more capacity for its Solomon mine when it exhausted its allocation at Port Hedland and MCC wanted access for its nearby Cape Lambert project.
According to Tipper, it therefore made financial sense for the three to become partners and share the costs.
"The State Government has made it clear that any new ports should be multi-user rather than private," Tipper said.
"So by creating such a consortium, we could share some of the common infrastructure costs, which would be quite onerous for any individual company.
"We have looked for guidance in the way some of the coal terminals in Queensland and New South Wales have been developed by similar consortiums."
According to Tipper, the initial designs for the port also allow for the capacity to be increased should demand warrant it.
"The designs provide for staged development up to the limit of the channel, which has been modelled at around 350 million tonnes per annum," he said.
"The plans show the stepped progression of how this port could grow in size, provided the right infrastructure is initially put in place."
The port has won support from the State Government, who in March pledged $3.5 million over three years to help build an industrial precinct around the site.
Aside from the actual port areas, the proposal also dedicates more than 1400 ha of land for industrial and mining operations as well as transport and service corridors.
Because Anketell Point is an unprotected harbour, the terminals will be built on finger jetties.
"The jetty has to reach water deep enough for cape-size vessels, but we do not want it to be too long," Tipper said.
"However, we also do not want to do too much dredging.
"So we will have to balance the construction costs of the jetty versus the cost of dredging the channel and come up with an optimal position."
According to Tipper, the consortium has also been looking at the best features of other ports, particularly the dynamic under keel clearance system in use at Port Hedland.
"Port Hedland probably uses the best under keel clearance techniques in the industry," he said.
"The port can identify every possible export window according to the tides, allowing the maximum amount of vessels to move safely along the channel."
Anketell will also incorporate Pilbara-standard equipment such as twin cell car dumpers and a 10,000 tonne per hour ship-loader and reclaimer combination.
"A broad range of facilities will be needed to turn this into a fully-functioning mine, rail and port district," Tipper said.
"This will include some specialised facilities, such as power stations and maybe a desalination plant."
According to Tipper, the definitive feasibility study for the project will soon be completed, which will pave the way for environmental and shareholder approvals by the middle of next year.
"With all the government and internal approvals completed, we hope to start construction shortly thereafter," he said.
"If we can keep to our current timeframe, we are hopeful of meeting our late-2013 production window."