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Just out of sight of the South Western Highway, in State forest between the tourism hotspots of Bridgetown and Balingup, one of WA’s oldest mining centres and its sleepy host town are at the heart of a global energy revolution.
More than a century after the area was first worked by tin miners, the Greenbushes mine and the town of the same name on its doorstep have emerged front and centre of the State’s multibillion-dollar development boom around lithium.
The metal and its chemical compounds have long been used in aluminium smelting, lubricants, pharmaceuticals, glassware and ceramics.
Its light weight and energy density means it is also found in the batteries powering laptop computers, mobile phones, calculators and digital cameras.
The emergence of electric vehicles, however, has set the lithium market alight.
With electric cars, scooters and trucks tipped to account for up to half of all manufactured vehicles by 2030, demand for lithium is on the rise as car makers and their suppliers plan for the rechargeable batteries that will power the new fleets.
The Greenbushes mine, 250km south of Perth, is already the world’s biggest producer of lithium. Picture: Ian Munro
Development will create the region’s own Super Pit — 2.6km-long, 1km wide and more than 500m deep Picture: Ian MunroUK-based minerals research house Roskill sees global consumption of lithium growing at 18 per cent a year up to 2026, driven by annual 26 per cent growth in the rechargeable battery market.
The Greenbushes mine, 250km south of Perth on the end of the Darling Scarp, is already the world’s biggest producer, with its long-life, high-grade ore body accounting for 30 per cent of the market.
But the mine operator, Talison Lithium, and its owners — China’s Tianqi Lithium and Albemarle Corp of the US — are now dramatically stepping up production at a cost of nearly $2 billion to capture the new opportunity in electric vehicles.
The development includes an $836 million expansion of mining operations at Greenbushes that will create the region’s own Super Pit — 2.6km-long, 1km wide and more than 500m deep.
The increased production will feed more than one $1 billion of new downstream processing plants in Kwinana and Kemerton, north of Bunbury, by Tianqi and Albermarle.
The boom, which is employing hundreds of construction workers in Greenbushes alone, is inevitably drawing more attention to the media-shy Talison, which has mined lithium from the operations immediately south of the town of Greenbushes since 2007, largely out of the limelight and apparently with few major problems with the locals.
“We don’t mind the scrutiny, we’re just not overly promotional,” Talison’s Perth-based chief executive Lorry Mignacca says.
“We’re not a public company. We’re a joint venture between probably the two most committed players in the downstream lithium industry.
“They’re the public voice, our job is to get on and produce lithium.”
The three-stage mine expansion, which will include the clearing of more State forest and likely a big increase in the number of haulage trucks sharing the region’s roads, could test the harmonious relationship Talison enjoys with local communities.
The Greenbushes expansion is underway. Picture: The West Australian, Ian Munro The West Australian 16/08/2018
The town of Bridgetown is also hoping to reap the benefits of the growing operation. Picture: Ian Munro
Talison Lithium and its owners are now stepping up production at a cost of nearly $2 billion. Picture: The West AustralianThere is also the challenge of meeting local expectations that with the mine’s permanent workforce set to more than double to about 650, more workers will live in Greenbushes rather than commute from bigger nearby centres.
“You’d want them to be living here, spending a few bob here, instead of driving in and doing their 12 hours and then shooting through to wherever they come from,” retiree Barry Perks, who worked in the mine for 40 years, says.
“I will be interested to see what’s happened in three or four years when all the construction is finished ... whether the town is any bigger.”
Mr Perks admits the mine has its critics.
“There is an element in town who don’t like the mine much, but generally I think it is good for the town and the district,” Mr Perks says.
Wife Lyn points out that mining has always been a part of the town’s DNA.
“The town was built around mining, mining wasn’t built around the town.”
The potential for mining at Greenbushes, named for the green bushes at a popular watering hole frequented by settlers travelling south from Bunbury, was first raised in 1886 by a government surveyor who reported the discovery of alluvial tin deposits in the area.
But it was David Stinton, a kangaroo shooter and amateur geologist, who set off a rush to the region two years later by washing a sample of dirt which returned nearly 250g of tin.
Stinton, who was given a £250 reward for his find by the colony’s government in 1894, applied for a mining lease over 400 acres and set up the Bunbury Tin Mining Company to develop the claim.
Miners and prospectors flooded into the area, pulling tin from shafts which still dot the area today.
The first school, with 17 students on the roll, opened at Greenbushes in 1893, a timber mill followed in 1894, a rail link was extended in 1898 from Donnybrook to a new station at North Greenbushes, 3km away, and a police station and court house were built at the turn of the century.
There was also a Miners’ Institute and even a short-lived gentlemen’s club, the Greenbushes Club.
The noted 1901 State reference book, 20th Century Impressions of WA, waxed lyrical about the town’s weather.
“A more bracing and delightful climate than that of Greenbushes can scarcely be imagined,” the authors wrote.
“Even in the height of summer, nights are pleasantly cool, and even in winter season the cold is rarely severe, although some inconvenience may be caused by exceptionally heavy rainfall.”
By 1907, when Greenbushes’ population had peaked at about 3000 – split between Greenbushes, North Greenbushes and South Greenbushes, otherwise known as the Bunbury end — the town had eight hotels and three dozen shops, including butchers, tailors, bakers and saddlers.
While a group settlement scheme and the expansion of the timber industry brought other newcomers into the area after World War 1, falling tin prices dampened mining activity and reined in the town over the following decades.
Talison lithium shipping co-ordinator Peter Eveson. Picture: Ian MunroBy the time tin mining was halted in the 1950s, the focus had switched to tantalum, production of which began from open cuts in the 1940s to fill demand triggered by World War II.
In 1980, Greenbushes Tin Ltd found major deposits of spodumene, the lithium-bearing ore, after sinking an underground decline while exploring for tantalum. Lithium production began in 1983.
Greenbushes Tin was later absorbed by gold miner Sons of Gwalia, which collapsed in 2004.
Talison came on the scene in 2007, buying the Greenbushes operations together with the Wodgina tantalum mine near Port Hedland from Sons of Gwalia’s administrators for $205 million.
Today, according to the last census two years ago, the town has a population of about 360.
On a crisp mid-week morning in August, there’s only a few cars on its tidy streets — a couple of mine workers getting a bite at the local roadhouse and some overseas tourists taking in the town’s history.
Two of its turn-of-the-century hotels remain, the Exchange (built 1907) and the Shamrock (about 1900), along with other reminders of its prosperous tin-mining past, including the court house and post office, all linked by a heritage trail. The local football team is long gone, and the Greenbushes shire merged with Bridgetown nearly 50 years ago.
But locals say the town has retained a strong community spirit across a network of local groups, many of them backed by Talison.
Luke Butler. Picture: Ian MunroLuke Butler, who with wife Shannon has run the Tasty Edibles bakery cafe in Greenbushes for 71/2 years, says the mine has been good in ensuring it spends money in the town’s businesses, including the roadhouse and the two hotels.
However, he adds that while it is “a big part” of his business, “we just don’t rely on them because you can’t”.
According to Mr Mignacca, about a third of the mine workforce, including its senior management, lives in Greenbushes.
“It’s not about giving money and supporting local clubs, we do all that,” he says.
“It’s about also being there, living there, and when anyone has an issue, they can give our people a call.”
Talison’s new mine boss, general manager of operations Craig Dawson, says operating so close to a residential area — the expansion will push the mine boundary to within 80m of Greenbushes’ outer homes — inevitably creates occasional issues for the town, whether around blasting vibrations, noise or dust.
“Any mining operation will have an impact and you can’t say you don’t,” Mr Dawson says.
“But we put a fair bit of time in to managing and, just as importantly reviewing, our practices to make sure we are keeping our impact as low as we can.
“But generally the community is pretty supportive of what we do and how we do it.”
Talison general manager - operations Craig Dawson. Picture: Ian MunroAlthough some of its workers live as far as 90km away in Bunbury, Talison requires that employees on the more common longer 12-hour shifts must live within 50km of the mine to mitigate fatigue.
That places most within a catchment area bounded by Donnybrook, Nannup, Boyup Brook and Manjimup. Many have chosen Bridgetown, just 17km to the south. Talison says though it would prefer more workers lived in Greenbushes, a shortage of houses and available land for building remain obstacles.
It also respects that many workers will choose where to live based on schooling for their children.
“We would like to encourage our people to live in town, but we fully recognise that being in family situations, people live outside Greenbushes but still in the capture zone,” Mr Dawson says.
Talison has budgeted, according to Mr Mignacca, “a substantial amount” as part of the expansion to build homes for workers in Greenbushes, provided it can acquire older vacant blocks in town which have reverted to Crown ownership.
“We have got to navigate what is required to get this land released, but our intention is to build housing in Greenbushes to accommodate workers,” he says.
“Any mining operation will have an impact and you can’t say you don’t ... But generally the community is pretty supportive of what we do and how we do it.”
Mr Dawson says that the Greenbushes’ long mine life of 20 years offers workers rare security.
“The longest I’ve lived in a house since I’ve been married is probably three years.
“If you looking at a long-term mine it would still make from my perspective commercial sense to buy a house and set yourself up.
“We think that’s part of our commitment to the town, to make sure we are supporting it and the local school and everything else.
“We have got a couple of blocks we can build on but we would certainly like more to enable people to set themselves up long-term in their own housing if they want that option.”
Given the shortcomings for families of fly-in fly-out work, Talison says there is no doubt that Greenbushes and the South West appeal for the lifestyle benefits on offer.
“I’ve just come off 20 years on FIFO,” Mr Dawson, who lives in Greenbushes with wife Jacqui, says.
“There are pros and cons in everything you want to do. I made this decision from a personal perceptive because I’d had enough of the FIFO lifestyle.”
Mr Butler, who says there is more land in Greenbushes than some believe, is another convert.
“It amazes me as to why you would want to live in Perth, complaining about unaffordable housing,” he says.
“I have a cheap mortgage and go on a good holiday every year.
“I only go to Perth to go to the airport.”
Shire of Bridgetown-Greenbushes chief executive Tim Clynch is urging all levels of government to collaborate to ensure not just there is more land available, but that the region takes full advantage of the “enormous” opportunity offered by the influx of new Talison jobs.
“People love to live here, but there’s not always the jobs,” he says.
Shire of Bridgetown-Greenbushes chief executive Tim Clynch.He wants to see the Talison investments “maximised” to foster development of regional infrastructure to enable new light industry and service businesses to feed off the expansion.
If Talison’s plans come to full fruition — the first stage of the expansion is under way, a second stage is awaiting regulatory approval and a possible third stage is being evaluated by the company — Greenbushes will produce up to 2.3 million tonnes of lithium concentrate a year from 646,000t last year.
The increased output will feed a $700 million plant being built by Tianqi at Kwinana to produce lithium hydroxide, a battery-grade chemical which sells for more than three times the price of concentrate, and a similar plant planned by Albemarle for Kemerton.
A potential issue is the increase in the number of trucks, from 30 to 100, hauling condensate each day out of Greenbushes on South Western Highway to the new plants and the ports of Bunbury and Fremantle.
Talison is studying the alternative of hauling by rail via the old Bunbury-Greenbushes line, which was closed in 2005.
“We’d love to do that if it’s feasible,” Mr Mignacca says.
“All we can really do is do the study, get the facts out about the trucks, inform the community and do what is good for us while taking account of the community and its perspective.”
This article first appeared on www.pilbaranews.com.au
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