Trouble in the North

IT HAS been a fortnight Rio Tinto would like to put behind it.

Overshadowing its celebration of 50 years in the far north Queensland mining town of Weipa were the announcements that it was mothballing its $1.4 billion South of Embley (SoE) project and was closer to closing down its Gove operation in the Northern Territory.

Both decisions have a direct impact on the towns around which they operate with hundreds of jobs on the line, including 1500 in Gove.

The SoE decision was part of a wider review of the mining giant’s capital expenditure program.

The long-mooted mine, south of Weipa and the Embley River promised to continue Rio’s presence in the region for decades.

In Weipa on Monday, a day before the SoE decision, Pat Fiore, Rio’s chief executive of bauxite and alumina, gave no indication to the change of plans for the project, saying it would go ahead “once all the planets had aligned” and a decision on a Land Court objection had been made.

While Rio says it is still proceeding with obtaining all regulatory approvals for the project, the company’s shift in focus to iron ore no doubt dealt a disappointing blow to the 3500 residents of Weipa.

About 1000 residents are employed by Rio, with 25 per cent of the workforce made up of indigenous employees.

“It’s been a very difficult road to get here, but lots of things have changed and we have seen improvements over the past 20 years,” said Linda McLachlan, chairwoman of the Ely Bauxite Mining Project Agreement Coordination Committee.

Ms McLachlan’s mother, Grace McLachlan, was an original signatory 16 years ago on the Western Cape Communities Co-existence Agreement (WCCCA) and the Ely Bauxite Mining Project Agreement – both of which still govern formal consultation processes between traditional owners and Rio.

“The agreements gave traditional owners a seat at the table with the mining sector and a voice, which they didn’t have before,” she said.

“It’s our duty and responsibility to take up the challenge to build upon what our predecessors have created . . .(the) black and white citizens of the Western Cape must work together to look after the land, with world-class best practice and by putting back as best we can what has been taken out.”

With an end date for Weipa’s bauxite operations forecast for the mid-2020s, the economic stability for the township and neighbouring communities of Mapoon, Aurukun and Napranum now hangs in the balance.

Without the aluminium business to provide $150 million in wages and salaries annually or the major injection to its economy (the operations were estimated to have contributed more than $180 million to Weipa’s gross regional product in the 2012-13 financial year) the next challenge will be in finding viable economic development opportunities in the region.

 

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