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BHP’s Olympic Dam mine to kickstart recovery

Jamie Walker and Michael Owen | May 02, 2009

Article from: The Australian
BHP Billiton has shrugged off the global economic blues to press ahead with plans to turn its Olympic Dam mine in South Australia into the largest open cut on earth and help kick the economy back into prosperity.

A 4600-page environmental impact statement, released by the company yesterday, set out an ambitious timetable for the conversion of the copper, gold, silver and uranium mine from underground to pit operations.

Work would start as early as April next year on the multi-billion-dollar upgrade.

Under BHP Billiton’s best-case scenario, excavation of the 1km-deep mine pit, and possibly construction of a pipeline to supply a gas power plant, would be under way by July next year.

By that time, a mini-city known as Hiltaba Village would be rising in the desert to house the thousands of workers needed for the project. This would be in addition to the expansion of the existing township of Roxby Downs.

The mine’s workforce would double from 4000 to 8000 when it reached full capacity next decade.

By then, Olympic Dam would be the world’s biggest single producer of uranium and one of the biggest of copper.

While the company stressed it would not release costings until the expansion received necessary environmental approvals from federal and state governments, and was then approved by the BHP Billiton board, its determination to see through planning will be a confidence-booster for the resource sector, hit hard by the global financial turmoil and reduced commodities prices.

The open cut envisaged by BHP Billiton at Olympic Dam would become the biggest man-made hole on the planet and yield $1 trillion worth of ore over its century-long life, more than $100million of which would be paid in royalties to the South Australian Government. Production would lift six-fold from 12million tonnes of ore annually to 72 million tonnes after 2020.

The news was welcomed by residents of the nearby mining town of Roxby Downs, where the boom had turned to gloom amid recent job cuts at Olympic Dam and falling local property values.

BHP Billiton will seek state and federal approvals to export up to 1.6 million tonnes a year of powdery copper-based concentrate with a low-level uranium content of about 2000 parts per million.

South Australian Premier Mike Rann, backed by the Howard government, was initially sharply critical of the company’s plan to send the concentrate to China rather than refine it here.

Mr Rann adopted a more conciliatory note yesterday, welcoming the EIS.

“We will work with BHP Billiton to maximise the number of jobs here … the point is it hasnot yet been approved,” Mr Rann said.

The existing underground operation at Olympic Dam currently ranks it as the 16th-largest in copper and third in uranium in the world.

Underground mining can extract only about 25 per cent of the ore containing recoverable quantities of copper, uranium, gold and silver; an open pit would allow up to 98 per cent of the known ore body to be exploited.

The proposed cut operation would work in tandem with the existing underground mine. The current smelter would also be expanded, although not to the extent that would be the case if two-thirds of the copper concentrate produced was not sent to China for processing.

Concern for the struggling Australian Giant Cuttlefish, which breeds in the area and was said by some conservationists to have been threatened by discharge from the desalination plant, have been dismissed by BHP Billiton.

After a specially extended 14-week public consultation period on the EIS, which ends on August 7, BHP Billiton will provide federal and state governments with a supplementary report for assessment. If the expansion were approved, the company’s board would make a final decision early next year.

South Australian Mineral Resources Development Minister Paul Holloway yesterday said the Government was not blinded by the wealth on offer at Olympic Dam.

“If there are issues we do not believe have been addressed properly, then we will ask BHP to reconsider them and make appropriate amendments,” Mr Holloway said.

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25416641-5006787,00.html

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