Mark Twain famously said “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
That now famous phrase is somewhat apropos for Tasmania an island state that is part of the Commonwealth of Australia, although the fight in this instance is more along the lines of tremendous international competition within the minerals and mining industry. Tasmania is located less than 250 km south of the Australian mainland, separated by Bass Strait. Given its size of just 515,000 people and a geographic area of 68,400 square kilometres, this remote island is one of the most mineral-rich regions of the world. Over the past two years exploration has been ramped up considerably due to a number of major discoveries.
During the past 24 months, Tasmania’s mineral and mining sector resulted in production valued at almost $1.6 billion, representing about 50 per cent of its export income. At the top of the list are ore exports, specifically iron, copper, lead, zinc and tin.
As of early 2013, there are seven large operational mines in Tasmania with about $1.76 billion in projects. Historically, the island has produced gold valued at around $1 billion.
David Green is a senior geologist with the Department of Infrastructure, Energy Resources with the Tasmanian government. The Canadian Business Journal asked Green what the main mining boom focuses on right now – way down under.
“It’s all geared around the resurgence of tin and tin associated magnetite,” Green replies. “It accounts for about 50 per cent of the new green fields programs that are going on. There’d be another 50 per cent in our traditional VHMS (volcanic hosted massive sulphides) type lead – zinc research going on.”
The resurgence has generated a great deal of interest in Tasmanian mining, with enterprises clamouring to be part of the new wave.
“There are about 40 companies that we’d describe as being active in doing advanced projects,” Green continues. He also notes that this resurgence takes the state back to its glory days.
“Tasmania was a big player in tin,” he confirms. “It had – and maybe still has – the largest underground tin mine in the world at Renison. When the tin prices dropped out in the ’80s we suffered big time but now that tin is back, so is Tasmania.”
Renison refers to Renison Bell, located on the west coast of the island. Tin exploration in the area dates back to the 1890s.
Much like other regions of the world, Tasmania is not immune from the effects of the stock market decline, which is most evident in the slowdown of many junior miners.
“It swings in round about,” Green offers. “Sometimes we hit the peaks higher and hit the lows lower than the mainland of Australia. In other regards sometimes it’s smoothed out for us; the shocks, by the time they reach the smaller island states. At the moment we’re probably hitting the peaks and the troughs higher than the mainland but it’s not always like that.”
With regards to international financing to help with the exploration of these major projects, Green says it’s a vital component.
“International financing is becoming a very big and important part of Tasmania,” he says. “We have Indian investment in a large copper mine on the west coast, the Mount Lyell Mine. We have Chinese investment, who own MMG who have the Rosebery Mine, which is a big player in the world of zinc and others.”
Green went on to say that the Chinese are the biggest players in Tasmania at the moment, which comes as no real surprise given their involvement with other major projects worldwide.
“We’re actively as a government forming better relationships with China,” Green says. “It’s not just based on the size of China, but we are actually their neighbours so if we can’t get along with them who can we get along with?”
A geological data package, compiled for the North East part of Tasmania and put together by Mineral Resources Tasmania, has revived interest in the exploration for gold in the State, and resulted in most of the prospective ground in the northeast being taken up as exploration licences.
Since 2002 the Tasmanian and Australian governments have jointly invested more than $16 million in developing new geophysical and geological information. In 2006 the Tasmanian government started the TasExplore Project, a four-year, $5 million program of geoscientific data acquisition and promotion.
A key to attracting potential investment revolves around the face Tasmania has a number of competitive natural advantages for enterprises seeking a strong rate of return on their minerals and mining investments. While there’s never a complete guarantee in this industry, the chances of a successful project have been extremely impressive thanks to the state being so rich in natural resources and forests. The unique topography lends itself for hosting large water reserves for hydro electric purposes.
The Tasmanian Government has made a public commitment to the timely delivery of state of the art infrastructure and fair investment conditions to encourage industry to take up opportunities for further multiple-stage processing of resources.
One of the fundamental elements that enable investment to succeed is a culture that permits the possibility of sustainable economic goals through proper advanced planning. Of note, the Tasmanian Government has also procured a policy of reconciliation with the Aboriginal population making the acceptance and final approval of many projects that much easier to achieve.
Significant Mines in Tasmania
The Avebury deposits were discovered in 1997 by drilling. Full scale underground mining began late 2006, with the first nickel concentrates being produced in July 2008. The mine is currently on care and maintenance.
Beaconsfield Gold Mine
This was one of Australia’s richest and deepest mines until its closure 99 years ago in 1914. The mine was worked to a depth of 450 metres and produced 800,000 oz. of gold. Following closure, the mine was allowed to flood and the surface collar of the shaft was affected by subsidence.
This mine operates as a cement manufacturing plant at Railton on Tasmania’s northwest coast. The raw material source is Ordovician limestone which is mined in quarries adjacent to the plant. Coal, mined in the Fingal Valley, is also used in the manufacturing process.
Coal has been mined in various areas of Tasmania from the earliest days of European settlement, with major deposits of black coal being discovered in the Fingal Valley in 1863. The completion of the railway line to St Marys in 1886 enabled the establishment of large scale coal mining in the Fingal Valley and this area has provided the majority of Tasmania’s coal since this time.
Western Metals Resources Ltd operated the world-class Hellyer underground mine in western Tasmania. The mine was opened in 1989 on a blind ore body discovered in 1983 by modern exploration techniques. The ore was concentrated on site and sent via rail for shipment.
The Henty mine is operated by Unity Mining Limited. The project, which was the result of 20 years of exploration effort by RGC Group companies, was officially opened in July 1996.
Mount Lyell Mine
The Queenstown area of western Tasmania has a long history of mining, with the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Company operating continuously for over 100 years from 1893 until closure in December 1994. The Queenstown area is famous for its barren tree-less landscape, with the lush rainforest being killed by a combination of bushfires, timber harvesting, and the fumes from the pyritic smelting process used to refine the copper ore. The mine is now operated by Copper Mines of Tasmania.
The first discovery of tin in the Renison Bell area of western Tasmania was made in 1890, with mining having been continuous until 2003. Mining of the sulphide ore was limited by poor recoveries until the development of the sulphide flotation process.
The Minerals and Metals Group (MMG) operates a silver-lead-zinc mine at Rosebery on Tasmania’s west coast. The history of mining in this area dates back to 1893, when the first discovery of mineralisation was made in a creek on the slopes of Mt Black. The Electrolytic Zinc Company of Australasia Limited purchased the Rosebery mines in 1920 and operated them until EZ was taken over North Broken Hill Peko Limited in 1984, with Pasminco Mining being formed in 1988.
Savage River Mine
Since 1965 Savage River Mines has operated an open-cut magnetite mine at Savage River and a pellet plant and loading facility on the northwest coast. The mine’s operators, PMI, decided to cease operations on completion of their current pit mining plan, with open-cut operations ceasing in April 1996 and all stockpiled ore being treated by the end of 1996. The operation was sold to Australian Bulk Minerals and mining recommenced in November 1997. The mine is now operated by Grange Resources Limited.