Broken Hill ore deposit

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Old Kintore headframe, now a museum exhibit, Broken Hill

The Broken Hill Ore Deposit is located underneath Broken Hill in western New South Wales, Australia, and is the namesake for the town. It is arguably the world's richest and largest zinc-lead ore deposit.


Chlorargyrite lining a vug in gossan at Broken Hill

The Broken Hill ore deposit was discovered in 1883 by boundary rider Charles Rasp, who discovered the gossan or weathered sulfide outcrop of massive lead-zinc sulfides on a feature known as Broken Hill. Rasp reported finding massive galena, sphalerite, cerussite and other oxide minerals, but was most concerned with the galena, a primary source of lead. His reports, believed exaggerated at the time, of masses of lead in the desert, soon proved true and sparked a 'lead rush' similar to gold rushes.


Broken Hill was exploited initially by small prospectors working the gossan for easily won galena, and soon dozens of shafts were sunk. Ore was carted to South Australia by camel trains, wagons and pack mules. A major secondary source of income became apparent, with extremely high silver grades recovered, including native silver, and other rare silver minerals present in abundance.

Mining has gradually moved away from the initial small prospectors, in line with the experience in all other major mineral fields, toward gradual consolidation of claims and tenure, an increase in tenure and mine size and efficiencies in operations resulting in smaller workforces. This has accelerated in the last part of the 20th century via the formation of the Broken Hill Proprietary Company - now BHP Billiton - and its exit from Broken Hill, toward only two operators at present, utilising highly efficient bulk underground mechanised mining.

Broken Hill township, backed by the man-made mullock heaps from mining along the Line of Lode

Drought Endangers Mining Operation in '50s[edit]

By the early 50s the Broken Hill area had suffered a major drought of over 8 years which was close to shutting down the mining operation. Due to the acute water shortage problem, the mine owners set in motion what became at by that time the largest use of a train for a massive water lift. Over a period of several months, special tanker car trains transported over 250 million gallons of water 40 miles by train which was pumped from the Darling River near Horse Lake, west to the small Mt Gipps rail siding where the water was transferred to large storage tanks that were built for the purpose. From the Mt Gipps storage tanks the water flows down hill through a large pipe to the Stephens Creek Reservoir, Broken Hill's main water storage facility. From Stephens Reservoir the water makes another downhill journey by a large pipe to the Broken Hills mining operation.[1]


The Broken Hill ore body is hosted within the gneisses of the Willyama Supergroup (Map), a mesoproterozoic sequence of quartz-rich feldspathic gneisses of interpreted sandstone protolith, and micaceous gneisses of siltstone protolith. The Broken Hill ore deposit is considered to be roughly 1,800 million years old.

The simplified geology of the Broken Hill ore body is a series of boomerang-shaped, highly sheared and disrupted ribbon-like and poddy massive sulfide lenses which outcropped in the central section (the old "Broken Hills" gossan hills) and plunge steeply north and moderately south.

The ore consists of massive, recrystallised sphalerite-rich, galena-sphalerite and galena-rich sulfide lenses often consisting of up to 100% lead-zinc sulfides, with little or no pyrite, chalcopyrite or gangue sulfides. The ore is hosted within a unit of gneiss known as the Potosi Gneiss.

The footwall to the mineralization is a psammopelite gneiss, consisting of feldspar, quartz, garnet, biotite and amphibole, with a pelite gneiss on the hanging wall. The footwall gneiss contains anomalous mineral chemistries including a rare lead-rich feldspar and manganese-rich garnet chemistries.

Ore is predominantly hosted at this stratigraphic break, but much of the ore body is structurally remobilised or offset into both the hangingwall and footwall, and the geometry of the ore deposit is particularly complex on the local scale.


The genesis of the Broken Hill ore body is of great historical importance to geologists, particularly in Australia, as it is an iconic ore body and one of the most studied in the world, with over 1,500 papers published to date. It is also of great current importance, as conceptions of the genesis of this enigmatic ore deposit and its structural and stratigraphic setting drives exploration for repetitions of the ore deposit along strike, and in finding analogues elsewhere in the world.

The genesis of Broken Hill is also of interest as it is of enduring controversy and conjecture, with the jury still mostly out on the matter although consensus has been reached on several key facets of the genetic processes which resulted in Broken Hill's formation. The interpretations presented below are the most palatable middle view of a range of opinions.

SEDEX mineralisation[edit]

Broken Hill is widely considered to be a sedimentary exhalative (SEDEX) deposit which has been extensively reworked and modified by metamorphism and shearing.[2] Key evidence for this overarching theory includes the association of silver, lead and zinc, which is found in many other SEDEX deposits worldwide and the position of the bulk of mineralization at a key stratigraphic contact between psammite and psammopelite gneisses. But there is mounting evidence that the situation at Broken Hill is much more complex.[3][4][5]

The Potosi Gneiss, and the manganiferous garnet horizon, are considered key indicators of original bedding orientation (S0) and are thus key exploration targets, as there is a proven association of anomalous lead and zinc within the gneissic stratigraphy with these horizons on a regional basis.

Metamorphic overprints[edit]

The Broken Hill ore deposit is hosted within the Proterozoic gneisses of the Broken Hill Block, adjacent to the Curnamona Craton in South Australia. The terrane in which Broken Hill is hosted has undergone a series of several metamorphic deformations at amphibolite facies.[6] This has resulted in the 'squeezing of the lead and zinc sulfides into the current basic boomerang shape, and resulted in the separation of the ore body into zinc-rich and lead-rich lodes and domains.

The lodes themselves show various structural facies, and show variable responses to shearing, though mostly in a ductile fashion. Many lodes, particularly the lead lodes, have sharp contacts with gneissic host rocks, indicating they have become structurally relocated during peak metamorphism. Similarly, it is conjectured that the current position of the zinc and lead lodes at Broken Hill may not necessarily be related to their original position along the bedding planes (S0), or vertically within the stratigraphic section.

It has taken some considerable effort to 'see through' the overwhelming structural overprint of metamorphism to infer the SEDEX classification.


The lower part of the Willyama Supergroup has undergone intense sodium alteration, particularly the Broken Hill Block and subdomain. This has resulted in pervasive albite alteration particularly in the Olary domain adjacent to Broken Hill.

The influence of high-temperature metamorphic fluids on the ore deposit cannot be discounted, although it is considered less central to genetic factors than previous theories of hydrothermal origins for the deposits. The current consensus view is that metasomatic overprints are present as a result of the focusing of flow through the zones of weakness around the massive sulfides, which are ductile failure loci in themselves.

Metasomatic effects include re-equilibrating isotopic systematics of the lead-zinc sulfides and wall-rocks, and introduction of rare elements into the sulfide bodies to form one of the most diverse mineralogical assemblages in the Earth's crust, with 1500 or more mineral species recognized at Broken Hill, including several dozen not reported elsewhere.

The association of the Broken Hill line of lode with a horizon of manganiferous garnets is considered to be partly a function of a potential protolith of exhalative manganiferous chert, metamorphically upgraded to a garnetiferous gneiss, and perhaps some reconsititution of that protolith by metasomatism associated with the nearby massive sulfides.

Broken Hill Type ore deposits[edit]

Spessartine garnet crystals in massive galena, Broken Hill

Broken Hill is the type locality for a class of ore deposits known as Broken Hill Type, or BHT, ore deposits.[3] This is a classification grouping of similar deposits for use in ore genesis theories and mineral exploration methodologies.[7]

The key criteria for BHT ore deposits are;[8]

  • Association with major sedimentary packages of sandstone and siltstone protoliths sequences in highly disturbed metamorphic terranes
  • A Proterozoic age is considered important, as no other major SEDEX lead-zinc deposits of this style are known from the Phanerozoic or Archaean
  • Association with manganiferous garnets.

Lead with the Broken Hill isotopic signature has been found across Antartica in ice cores dating from the late C19


  1. ^ "Water Lift Fights Australian Drought" Popular Mechanics, January 1953, pp. 146-147.
  2. ^ Most authors still consider Broken Hill to be a metamorphosed variant of the Sedex family, despite a range of critical differences regarding chemistry and setting. Walters 1998, p. 230
  3. ^ a b Walters, S. G. (1998). "Broken Hill-type deposits" (PDF). AGSO Journal of Australian Geology and Geophysics 17 (4): 229–237. 
  4. ^ Williams, Patrick J.; Smith, Michael J. (2003). "Pb–Zn–(As) enrichments in amphibolites from Broken Hill-type ore systems, NW Queensland: products of retrograde hydrothermal dispersion". Geochemistry: Exploration, Environment, Analysis 3 (3): 245–261. doi:10.1144/1467-7873/03-008. 
  5. ^ Williams, Patrick J.; et al. (2005). "Lead and zinc-rich fluid inclusions in Broken Hill-type deposits: Fractionates from sulphide-rich melts or consequences of exotic fluid infiltration?". Mineral Deposit Research: Meeting the Global Challenge. session 7: 861–864. doi:10.1007/3-540-27946-6_219. 
  6. ^ "Curnamona Geology overview, PIRSA". Retrieved 2007-08-14. 
  7. ^ Spry, Paul (2009). "A re-classification of Broken Hill-type Pb-Zn-Ag deposits" (PDF). 2009 PDAC Convention: Open Sessions. Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada. 
  8. ^ More technically: 1) high Pb+Zn+Ag values with Pb ≥ Zn; 2) Metamorphism of amphibolite to granulite facies; 3) Paleo- to Mesoprotoerozoic clastic metasedimentary host rocks; 4) Sulfides that are spatially associated with bimodal (felsic and mafic) volcanic rocks, and stratabound gahnite- and garnet-bearing rocks and iron formations; 5) Stacked orebodies with characteristic Pb:Zn:Ag ratios and skarn-like Fe-Mn-Ca-F gangue assemblages, and the presence of Cu, Au, Bi, As, and Sb; and 6) Sulfur-poor assemblages. Spry 2009


  • Mining and Exploration at Broken Hill: A Review. Sydney: Department of Mineral Resources, New South Wales. 1981. ISBN 978-0-7240-6658-2. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 31°57′S 141°27′E / 31.950°S 141.450°E / -31.950; 141.450