Sink or swim: In conversation with the Tasmanian Minerals Council

As Tasmania struggles under Australia’s highest rate of unemployment, its powerful environmental lobby seeks to shut down the mining activity that could provide sustainable jobs and income. Juliet Langton speaks to the organisation fighting to save Tasmania’s minerals industry and, possibly, the island’s economy.

Think of mining in Australia and the first thing that comes to mind will likely be the iron ore giants – BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group – in residence in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. In this regard, Australia’s small island state of Tasmania tends to get overlooked; but its minerals industry is significant, and its potential for further mineral development enormous.

By value, the products of mining account for half of all Tasmania’s exports, making the minerals industry – comprising exploration, mining and mineral processing – the state’s largest. A wide variety of minerals have been found and mined in Tasmania; its top minerals including copper, magnetite, gold, zinc and lead. Notable mines include the Savage River magnetite mine; the Renison tin mine; the Mt Lyell copper mine; the Rosebery silver-lead-zinc mine; and the Henty gold mine.

Many more mining projects await approval and development, but are at risk of being stifled by the protests of the state’s powerful environmental lobby. For, despite the fact Tasmania already has the highest proportion of parks and reserves in Australia, the environmental lobby wants to bring even more of the mineral-rich Tarkine region under protection from industry.

On the opposite side of the ring is the Tasmanian Minerals Council (TMC), who believes that mineral development in the Tarkine can be both sustainable – leaving no permanent damage to the environment – and highly beneficial, a lifeline even, for the financially troubled island state.

Industry’s champion

The TMC was set up around 30 years ago to promote the development of a safe, profitable and sustainable minerals sector operating within Tasmania. Its members include all the main mines and mineral processing operations, in addition to supply-chain companies and individuals providing goods and services to the minerals industry. One of the TMC’s roles is to represent the views of its members on a range of issues to the state and federal governments and the public.

Chief Executive Terry Long joined the TMC in 1996, having spent most of his career as a political reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “I was looking for a change in occupation and a new challenge, and the TMC CEO position gave me that,” he remarks. “Political journalism requires similar skills to an industry association; both involve liaising with politicians, bureaucrats and the public, as well as a fairly deep understanding of the political process.
“When I joined, social issues were becoming more important to the mining industry; and I was keen to pursue that agenda.”

The environment gains a voice

The TMC originated at a time when environmental concerns, in particular, were just beginning to encroach upon the resource industries, including minerals and forestry. Prior to that, there were fewer restrictions and regulations on the ways in which companies in the minerals industry operated, and probably less need for a representative organisation. That began to change in the early 80s.

“From the late 70s, through the 80s and 90s, a lot of change occurred in relation to the interaction between industry and environment,” says Long. “Afterwards, there were much higher expectations on industry in regards to environmental performance. I was keen to get the minerals industry ahead on that front. It was a matter of broadening that social responsibility and trying to stay one step ahead of the those on the high moral ground.”

Long claims the minerals industry is already achieving that, with the employment of environmental scientists to evaluate mine sites. He says that, even with environmental regulations as exacting as they are, many mining companies go beyond what is required of them in terms of environmental and social responsibilities. Nevertheless, it can often seem that nothing is good enough to satisfy the environmental lobby, with which the TMC “frequently and severely” clashes, says Long.

“The environmental lobby in Australia is driven by deep ecologists, who aim to preclude any opportunity for the resource industries to maintain their presence or expand,” he says. “Deep ecology is the competing theory to that of sustainable development, which we support.”

Overstepping the line

Long supports the regulation of the minerals industry, but believes there is a movement now into the politics of whether industry is allowed by society to exist, and of whether countries want resource industries. He believes this mode of thinking threatens Tasmania’s survival.

“There are four new mines on Tasmania’s horizon now and these have been approved by the EPA [Environmental Protection Association] on rigorous assessments,” says Long. “But the deep ecologists campaign to prevent them nonetheless because they’re opposed to resource industries on a fundamental level.”

One particular sticking point for the TMC is the environmental lobby’s campaign to stop all development in the Tarkine, an area in northwest Tasmania covered mostly by statutory reserves – environmentally significant areas protected under an Act of Parliament.

The TMC argues that the purpose of these reserves is to allow careful development of mineral deposits, under controlled and regulated terms, for the benefit of the entire state. It claims that preventing such development will serve only to exacerbate the state’s largest problem: the highest unemployment rate in Australia.  

“Deep ecologists have been fairly successful in eliminating the timber industry in Tasmania, and that is a large contributor to rising unemployment,” he says. “They’re now trying to eliminate the mining industry as well, so we’re counting on the major parties to take a sensible view of the economy and ignoring the deep ecologists because if they don’t, Tasmania will become a world-leading example of the implementation of deep ecology – but also a failed state.”

Enormous potential

Contesting its components’ claims, the TMC sees only benefits in the mineral industry’s activities. It is a significant source of income for the country and a significant source of employment – not only for the minerals industry, but also for associated supply chain industries. Furthermore, says Long, there is still significant room for growth within the industry and further benefits to be reaped.

“There’s enormous potential for the discovery of economic ore bodies in Tasmania – particularly in the western part of the state, which is very heavily mineralised across a whole range of minerals,” he adds.

There are four especially notable projects on Tasmania’s horizon. Three of these belong to Venture Minerals: the Mt Lindsay Tin/Tungsten Project near the Port of Burnie in northwest Tasmania; the Livingstone DSO (Direct Shipping Ore) Project 3.5km away from that; and the Riley DSO Project 10km away. The fourth, designated the Nelson Bay River Iron Project, is owned by Shree Minerals.

“Of those, the most exciting is probably the Mount Lindsay project,” says Long. “The DFS has been done on one segment of the ore body but there are many more segments remaining outside that, so it’s potentially a mine that could run for decades.”

Such a mine would provide a valuable and sustainable source of income and employment for Tasmania, helping to bring long-term stability and industry to the state. You can be certain that the TMC will be doing all it can to ensure that happens.

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