Steaming ahead

EMPLOYMENT has leapt 40% in the mining sector and there are still jobs waiting to be filled in Queensland’s mining sector. Not a bad sign for any industry, however, Queensland’s miners also face the challenges of issues such as water supply, accommodation and infrastructure which are not speedily resolved.
Steaming ahead Steaming ahead Steaming ahead Steaming ahead Steaming ahead

Chris Harvie of Datem Moore, right, is welcomed to the company by chief executive John Moore.

Staff Reporter

Published in the January 2006 Australia’s Mining Monthly

Mining operations throughout the Sunshine State have already been hit hard by prolonged drought conditions and rural housing shortages, as well as the region’s much-publicised port and rail infrastructure constraints, and industry experts have cautioned that the sector may suffer long-term damage if adequate controls are not put in place.

The warnings follow a period of unprecedented growth in the state’s minerals industry during 2006 that in turn has fuelled a surge in local employment numbers since January.

In May, figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed there were about 38,000 people working in Queensland’s mining industry, reflecting an increase of more than 40% on the same time last year. Recent estimates suggest that one in every eight jobs in the state is linked directly or indirectly to the resources sector, while in central Queensland – home to the coal-rich Bowen Basin and the port of Gladstone, which produces around 40% of the state’s export earnings – the ratio is closer to one in every four.

While the boost in numbers has provided some relief to the state’s skills shortage – at the end of the last financial year, there were still 700 mining jobs waiting to be filled – Queensland Resources Council chief executive officer Michael Roche believes it has mostly caught the sector off-guard, creating accommodation shortages in remote mining towns and placing additional pressure on the region’s already-tight water supply.

“It is fair to say that the industry has fallen behind in terms of the adequacy and diversity of accommodation options in some of our mining towns, particularly homes for families who do not have the benefit of a mining wage,” he said.

“Companies, local governments and the state are playing catch-up at the moment because the 40% rise in employment numbers has been unlike anything we have seen before.

“It has caught us short in many areas and perpetuated the pressures we already have in skills and infrastructure. When you overlay all of that with one of the worst droughts in history, it is clear that we have an interesting set of challenges ahead.”

In December, the QRC launched a strategy to combat the skills shortage by doubling the proportion of women in the resource sector by 2020.

“Only 21% of the total resource sector workforce in Queensland is female and only 5% of those are filling what we would call “non-traditional” roles such as engineering and geology,” Roche said.

“We cannot continue to refuse to tap into half the potential workforce in this country when we are facing a serious issue which could potentially affect the future of our industry.”

Roche said the same level of attention was being given to long-awaited improvements in the state’s port and rail infrastructure network.

The Queensland Government’s commitment to those improvements was demonstrated earlier this year when it appeared the works might slow. Deputy Premier Anna Bligh responded and an immediate progress review by the Coordinator General was called.

Queensland is currently the only Australian State to have a Coordinator General with its own Act of Parliament, vesting the person in that role with the power to expedite projects considered to be of “state significance”, including coal mine developments and infrastructure expansions.

Coal powered

Recent coal projects such as Aquila Resources’ Isaac Plains and BHP Mitsui Coal’s Poitrel open cut coal mines, both of which commenced production in November, as well as planned developments including Rio Tinto’s Clermont mine and the expansion of Ensham Resources’ operations have enhanced the importance of Queensland as a centre for coal production and added further weight to the infrastructure urgency.

Then there are planned developments over the remainder of the State’s vast mineral reserves, including the Gladstone nickel project near Marlborough in central Queensland, owned by Gladstone Pacific Nickel and due for commissioning in 2010; the Nornico nickel laterite project near Charters Towers (Metallica Minerals, 2009); and the Wolfram Camp tungsten-molybdenum project near Cairns (Queensland Ores) and multi-mineral Wateranga project (Queensland Industrial Minerals), both at advanced stages of investigation – all of which will eventually add to the bottlenecks blighting the port and rail system.

For the time being, however, the biggest issues are water and accommodation, which were once in plentiful supply and have since become victims of the industry’s phenomenal success, raising major concerns for government, regional communities and the mining industry.

With the majority of central Queensland officially “drought declared” and the nearby Eungella Dam (the main source of supply) at just 16% capacity following three years of well-below average rainfall, the Beattie government now hopes the March 2007 commissioning of a $300 million, 220 kilometre pipeline from the Burdekin Falls Dam (which frequently overflows) to Moranbah in the northern Bowen Basin will help alleviate the pressure for the region’s coal miners, who have signed up as foundation customers to access the $2500/megalitre supply.

During the recent state election and as part of its Central Queensland water supply strategy, the government also committed to investigating the construction of a new dam near Mackay and another further south in the Surat Basin, to service the area’s promising coalfields.

For the communities surrounding these mines, however, surety of supply is a very different story, according to outspoken here to read on.

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