The man responsible for the Australian operations of Chinese giant Sinosteel has opened up on the company’s frustrating wait for approvals for a new iron ore mine in Western Australia’s Midwest region, as the WA government closes in on a decision.
Sinosteel picked up its assets in WA through its $1.2 billion takeover of Midwest Corp near the top of the market back in 2009 and has since spent around $850 million trying to advance its projects.
The company has little to show for that investment to date. Its big Weld Range development was stalled by the collapse of the Japanese-backed plans for the Oakajee port and rail network, and the smaller scale operations that were meant to be a precursor to that have been marred by a drawn-out environmental approvals process.
WA Environment Minister Stephen Dawson could be days away from making a final decision on Sinosteel’s Blue Hills mine, weighing whether to agree to the recommendation from the state’s Environmental Protection Authority to block the mine.
It is one of two potentially contentious decisions sitting on Dawson’s desk. The other decision is whether to approve Mineral Resources’J5-Bungalbin East Project in the Helena and Aurora Range.
Sinosteel Midwest’s executive general manager Stuart Griffiths told The Weekend Australian that the protracted approvals process for Blue Hills had been frustrating. “We would’ve liked the process to be quicker than it has been, no doubt,” he said. “So would the hundreds of people who ended up getting retrenched and losing their jobs because of it, so would the local community.”
The decisions on Sinosteel’s Blue Hills and MinRes’s J5-Bungalbin East shape as an early test of WA’s Labor government, which was elected on a platform of creating jobs but which has also taken steps to rein in industry on environmental grounds.
It has already reinstalled a ban on uranium mining and has introduced a statewide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.
Griffiths argues that Blue Hills will be a vital economic boost to a region desperately in need of investment (the Midwest sits to the south of the Pilbara and west of the Goldfields but enjoys only a sliver of the levels of mining activity in those two regions).
The environmental sensitivities at Blue Hills centre around the Acacia Woodmaniorum, a plant in the area that is classed as a threatened species.
Sinosteel has invested millions studying the plant and how best to rehabilitate the banded iron formation that hosts the Blue Hills deposit, and is certain it has the skills to handle any conditions that the minister imposes with any approval.
Notably, Griffiths says it has been established that Acacia Woodmaniorum is a “disturbance species” that flourishes in areas of activity. In essence, the sort of activity the government may block to protect the species has been shown to encourage the growth of the very plant.
“It’s been shown in areas where we’ve had drill pads or tracks, it’s grown back naturally at three or four times the previous density,” he says. “It’s producing seedlings and it’s propagating itself, it’s show its ability to be re-established. It thrives.”
The Conservation Council of WA is calling for Blue Hills to be blocked, with director Piers Verstegen describing the Mungada Ridge that hosts Blue Hills as having unique environmental values. “The Mungada Ridge area has long been recognised as significant as the only largely intact significant banded ironstone formation landform in the Blue Hills east of Morawa,” Verstegen says.
“The EPA found that Mungada Ridge is the largest, highest and steepest of all landforms within the local area, and that ‘impacts to the declared rare flora species Acacia Woodmaniorum and a number of other priority species and communities are not manageable and would remain significant’.”
Griffiths argues that Blue Hills mine plan will cover just 1.2 percent of the Mungada Ridge, and will involve backfilling and rehabilitating an old open pit mine elsewhere on the ridge.
“It’s still going to be just as high, it’s still going to be just as large, and it’s still going to be crescent-shaped,” he said.
“So on the landform side, we don’t change anything.”
Griffiths has been heartened by the strong support for the project shown by local companies and individuals in the region. Blue Hills’ recent unsuccessful appeal of the EPA’s recommendation drew 45 public submissions, all of which voiced support for the mine, and it has attracted little of the sort of public opposition that has been directed towards MinRes and J5-Bungalbin East.
Griffiths hopes that public support will help boost the chances of Blue Hills winning approval. If the decision doesn’t go Sinosteel’s way, Griffiths says the company will be willing to wait to try again under another future government.
“We’re committed to Australia and developing mines in Australia,” he said.
“Does this government want to have job creation in their term, or is it the case that we’re waiting for another pro-job government?”