Many miners’ hopes have been raised at times that the copper mine at Mt Lyell would reopen, only to be dashed. (ABC News: Mitch Woolnough)
Politicians trumpeting the rebirth of mining in Tasmanian communities desperate for jobs are being warned they may be doing damage.
- Mining is the biggest employer on Tasmania’s west coast
- The resources downturn has hit the region hard, with one in five mining jobs lost in six years
- But there’s burgeoning optimism with a high-grade ore deposit found, and value-adding opportunities
Don Edmonston has witnessed first-hand the impact changes in the mining industry have had on the town of Zeehan, on Tasmania’s wild west coast.
He has owned the Zeehan hardware store in the town’s quiet main street since 2001.
Mr Edmonston said the community’s hopes were raised last year when then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Premier Will Hodgman visited the nearby Avebury Nickel Mine during the Braddon by-election campaign for the announcement that the mine would reopen as early as January 2019, bringing with it 200 jobs.
The politicians donned hard-hats for a tour of the site, with Mr Turnbull declaring it would mean “more jobs, more opportunity, more investment”.
Locked gates with a stop sign at the entrance to the Avebury Nickel Mine. (ABC News: Mitch Woolnough)
A year after that announcement, there has been no movement.
Mr Edmonston said locals had now given up hope of a restart, with Avebury’s care and maintenance workers left in limbo.
“I really feel for the guys that are employed out there with not much job security in the way that they’ve had a big promise and nothing’s happened, the promise of it going to start and not eventuating, especially considering the promise was pretty strong,” he said.
West Coast Council Mayor Phil Vickers said expectations had been raised on the back of that Avebury announcement.
“Those sort of announcements are terrific, but when they don’t happen it creates an unsettling in the community,” he said.
Avebury’s owners blame a rates stoush with the West Coast Council for their failure to reopen the mine.
Don Edmonston has criticised politicians for donning hard-hats and making promises to communities. (ABC News: Mitch Woolnough)
Assets will be sold so the council can recoup about $400,000.
‘Mining will always be important’: mayor
Tasmania’s west coast is rugged, isolated, and home to significant mineral deposits including gold, copper, tin and nickel.
The region has been largely dependent on mining for more than 100 years, but despite the political announcements promising hundreds of jobs the population has fallen by 12 per cent in the past five years to just over 4,100 people.
Mr Vickers has watched the industry contract, particularly after the Mount Lyell copper mine was put into care and maintenance in 2014 following the deaths of three workers.
About 200 jobs were lost.
West Coast Mayor Phil Vickers says every job loss is a hit to the region. (ABC News: Rhiannon Shine)
“Mining is still certainly the single biggest employer on the west coast, and I think my own personal view is that mining will always be important,” Mr Vickers said.
“Over the last five years or so, or perhaps even a little bit longer, I think there’s been a realisation from the community that we perhaps need to diversify a little bit.”
Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows one in five jobs in Tasmania’s mining industry has disappeared since 2013.
Drive-in, drive-out miners take benefits with them
Former miner Richard Wolfe, who now owns the Zeehan Rock Shop, said the west coast had always been a “boom and bust” area.
He said drive-in, drive-out arrangements now meant the benefits from the west coast’s mineral wealth were going elsewhere.
“Zeehan’s got a drive-in, drive-out group now that doesn’t live here but works in the mines. That’s made it a bit more difficult for the region to advance or small businesses to operate down here,” he said.
“A lot of local miners do live in the region, it’s probably about 50-50, but we’d like to see it a bit higher than that,” Mr Wolfe said.
Reasons for hope
Despite concerns over the future of some mines, optimism around others has increased.
Last month Venture Minerals announced it would restart operations at the Riley iron ore mine near Tullah, which is expected to create up to 100 jobs.
And according to the University of Tasmania’s Head of Earth sciences, Sebastien Meffre, the west coast’s mining industry will benefit from increasing demand for metals in electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels.
“That means that into the foreseeable future there will be demand for some of the metals that are there in western Tasmania,” he said.
A new area of high-grade tin has been discovered on Tasmania’s West Coast. (ABC News: Mitch Woolnough)
“The companies are very actively exploring around the existing mine sites … they’re still discovering new zones and new areas to extract and mine.
“I think there are plenty of future jobs in that industry, probably not in an old-fashioned mining boom sort of way, but a sustained, long-term future.”
Demand from technology industries has been beneficial for Australia’s largest tin mine at Renison Bell, near Zeehan.
About 47 per cent of mined tin is used in solder such as for batteries including in electric cars.
Renison has recently discovered a significant new ore deposit, with high-grade tin, which it expects will add years to the life of the mine.
There are also plans to establish a smelter to reprocess tailings and extract previously discarded metals.
General Manager of the Renison tin mine Mark Recklies is confident of the market. (ABC News: Mitch Woolnough)
General manager Mark Recklies said the future was looking bright.
“Anything to do with electronics, electrics, there’s likely to be a use of tin, so we’re pretty confident it’s the right market to be in,” he said.
And Zeehan’s Don Edmonston can also see some reasons for optimism.
“It has been a lot quieter than this, it is quiet at the moment, but I can see the future is pretty good,” he said.
Resources Minister Guy Barnett was not available for an interview, and did not respond to specific questions about the Avebury mine.
Mr Barnett has said the Government hoped its $2 million Exploration Drilling Grant Initiative to identify new mining opportunities would help attract new investment to Tasmania’s mining industry.