Building the Nation

Mining and Remote Infrastructure

From the discovery of coal used for heating and cooking to the world-famous gold rushes of the 1850s, to mining multinational enterprises such as Rio Tinto, Xstrata, Alcan, Alcoa, BHP Billiton and Newcrest, the mineral and resources sector in Australia has always been essential to the strength of the nation’s economy.
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Australia remains a formidable presence on the global resources tage and a highly-respected, world-class provider of coal, oil and gas and minerals such as iron ore, nickel, zinc, diamonds, copper, silver, gold, uranium, bauxite and aluminum.

Many mining communities were established in remote areas where little, if any, infrastructure previously existed. For decades, mining towns were painstakingly built by hand from wood and tin brought in by packhorses.

Some of these towns, like the nineteenth-century historic gold mining town of Kalgoorlie, still exist, with old hotels and pubs lining the main street. As one of the nation’s finest heritage precincts, Kalgoorlie remains a living snapshot of what life was like for miners and locals in the area from the late 1890s through the 1910s.

The town still derives a significant part of its income from minerals such as gold and nickel, originating in the Super Pit. A massive open-cut gold mine some 3.6 km in length by 1.6 km in width and 512 metres deep, the Super Pit is a 24/7 operation, expected to be in production until approximately 2029. The Super Pit – owned by Newmont Australia Pty Ltd and Barrick Australia Pacific and managed by Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines (KCGM) – remains the largest gold open pit mine in the nation. It produces up to 850,000 ounces of gold every year.

Although mining techniques have evolved significantly over the years, the need for construction of remote infrastructure, such as camps for workers or even entire mining towns, has remained the same.

Depending on the mine site and its projected longevity, structures can be permanent. In other instances, particularly on remote site locations were structures need to be erected, dismantled and relocated to other sites, companies look at temporary solutions.

Pre-engineered tensile fabric structures are useful in isolated camp areas. Highly transportable, these structures can be installed quickly, are weatherproof, can be large enough to accommodate vehicles and are less damaging to the environment and ecosystems than permanent structures.

A number of mining companies, however, choose to create camps on a large scale out of necessity. With the need to accommodate sometimes thousands of workers, these sites can resemble entire towns or villages since they are, after all, serving as homes away from home. Larger construction firms have entire divisions specializing in infrastructure construction for oil, gas and mining industries. The builds are a boost not only for the resource sectors, but for construction and the entire Australian economy.

Many of these companies are experts in the delivery of quality infrastructure projects across the nation and are aware of the specific requirements for mine and other resource sites. Construction firms work closely with resource companies to address needs and successfully manage projects from inception to completion. These massive scale sites often call upon the combined talents of draftsmen, engineers, project managers, carpenters and a host of other tradespeople.

There is a need to be aware of the project’s lifecycle: some mines remain in operation for just a few years while others can produce for decades. Master planning well in advance is necessary.

For many years, monumental construction projects have been linked to mining in Australia, with good reason. The country is one of the world’s leading nations in the mining and production of gold, iron ore, coal, minerals and oil and gas. Large-scale infrastructure is vital not only to mine and process these commodities, but transport to them from mine pits to ports on the way to final destinations abroad.

Construction of buildings and associated infrastructure such as roads, power and railways can easily amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. These costs can be among the largest for mining companies and must be carefully calculated once a site is deemed viable.

Mine, oil and gas sites require many buildings to be constructed, such as high-voltage electrical infrastructure substations, infrastructure for water and wastewater treatment, mechanical systems, asset protection systems, lighting and power plants in addition to worker accommodation.

As minerals are often located in mines far from major cities, extensive road or rail infrastructure is often required in order to successfully transport goods.

Initial infrastructure construction requires the building of roads for access, often followed by airstrips and roads for haulage trucks to transport raw minerals to facilities to be crushed, scrubbed, screened, blended or treated. For railway construction, related works involve signaling and communications systems, conveyors, rail spurs, train loaders, bridges and culverts and maintenance yards.

Many of the largest mine site companies in Australia, such as Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group, operate company-owned infrastructure to facilitate the movement of minerals from mine pits to railways, roads and ports for transportation. At a cost of billions of dollars, these include the construction of railways and rail spurs, such as Fortescue Metals Group’s 310 kilometer long railway which extends from mine sites at Cloud Break and Christmas Creek to private berths in Port Hedland. BHP Billiton, operates hundreds of kilometers of railway lines servicing mine sites at Mount Neman and Mount Goldsworthy.

Very large companies, like Thiess, have the capabilities to handle all aspects of mine-site construction, including design and planning, operations, plant and asset management, technical services, processing and more. In Australia, the company has worked with all major resource entities, providing long-term mining services for Prominent Hill Copper and Gold Mine, the Roper Bar iron ore project in the Northern Territory, the Mt Owen Mine in New South Wales and Queensland’s Burton Mine, to name a few.

The company’s integrated end-to-end mine infrastructure solutions include upgrading and creating new facilities and infrastructure works such as workshops, site offices, access roads, pumping stations, water supply pipelines and transmission lines.

Despite recent slowdowns in mining, it has become more important than ever before that Australia continues to invest in infrastructure. A report from the Business Council of Australia’s Project Costs Task Force stated that infrastructure investment in excess of four per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product – approximately $767 billion over a decade – was vital to the economy.

As Australia is a leader in mining and resources, the nation is also a pioneer in the field of mine-site infrastructure technology. Already, some sites in Pilbara are actually run remotely from hundreds of kilometres away in Perth by technicians using sensors, cameras and computer monitors as machines carry out operations. While costly, these tasks and many others help mine-site operations to run more effectively and – since there are no humans on site – with greater safety.

Mining in the nation has come a very long way since the gold rush of the 1850s, and as long as there are vast resources to tap, there will be a need for large-scale infrastructure projects across Australia.

Strategic Resources

There are 17 classified rare earth elements, many of which have strategic purposes. Rare in name only, these elements are anything but scarce as they are found all over the world. The challenge rare earth elements pose is during extraction, as they exist in low concentrations and are difficult to separate from one another.

September 26, 2017, 7:14 PM AEST