Olympic Dam mine
Main shafts, 2009
|Year of acquisition||2005|
The Olympic Dam mine is a large poly-metallic underground mine located in South Australia, 550 km NNW of Adelaide. It is the fourth largest copper deposit and the largest known single deposit of uranium in the world, although copper is the largest contributor to total revenue. Approximately 70% of the mine's revenue comes from copper, 25% from uranium, and the remainder from silver and gold. BHP Billiton has owned and operated the mine since 2005. The mine was previously owned by Western Mining Corporation.
Since it opened in 1988, an extensive underground mine, an integrated metallurgical processing plant and expansive open-air tailings storage facilities have been constructed. The adjacent Olympic Dam mining centre and the nearby township of Roxby Downs service the mine and accommodate its workforce. Daily flights to and from Adelaide are provided via the Olympic Dam Airport.
BHP Billiton planned to expand the mine by establishing a new open cut pit and building extensive supporting infrastructure. In 2012 the expansion was postponed indefinitely pending investigation of a "new and cheaper design". As of 2013, Olympic Dam is the second largest uranium-producing mine in the world, having produced 4,100 tonnes in the financial year ending June 2013. The only larger producer is the MacArthur River uranium mine in Canada.
BHP Billiton take-over
BHP Billiton made a successful bid for WMC Resources in March 2005 and the offer was accepted by the ACCC in April. BHP Billiton was not the only resources company to express interest in the project. Xstrata had made prior takeover bids in late 2004, and French state-run nuclear industrial company Areva had entered into what were rumoured to be partnership discussions with WMC Resources in February.
After the acquisition, BHP Billiton began to plan what would become a proposed $30 billion expansion project, involving the excavation of a new open cut mine within the existing Special Mining Lease. The expansion plan was expected to be a boon to the South Australian economy- forecast to generate an estimated 23,000 direct and indirect jobs. Major new infrastructure would need to be constructed to facilitate the expansion, including a new airport at Olympic Dam, a rail link, a seawater desalination plant at Point Lowly, a barge-landing facility near Port Augusta and a worker village near Andamooka.
The company's access to the Government of South Australia was enhanced by the formation of the Olympic Dam Task Force in 2006, which has since served as a single entry-point for the company's interactions with the state. BHP Billiton also began to develop relationships with scientific and academic institutions with the objective of facilitating relevant technical, environmental and policy research.
In 2008, BHP Billiton completed a pre-feasibility study into the expansion of the mine's operations, with the first step of expansion scheduled for completion by late 2013. In December 2008, South Australia's Premier Mike Rann revealed advice from BHP Billiton that the project would proceed as an open-cut operation.
While being welcomed at the time by State and Federal governments as a major boost to the economy, the proposed expansion of mining operations also attracted considerable criticism. In 2007, BHP Billiton attracted public attention for delaying the release of its environmental impact statement for the Olympic Dam expansion, and for the company's response to inconsistencies in the scope and configuration of the proposed expansion.
In May 2009, the company released an extensive Environmental Impact Statement for public comment. It revealed the detailed plans for the proposed construction and its future operation. Among the project's new infrastructure requirements were: a desalination plant at Point Lowly (Port Bonython), a rail link to Pimba, a worker accommodation village between Olympic Dam and Andamooka and a barge landing facility near Port Augusta.
In May 2011, the company released a Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement in response to the 4,197 submissions received during a 14 week public comment period.
On 10 October 2011, State and Federal Government approvals for the mine expansion were granted.
Seawater Desalination at Point Lowly
In order to meet the project's increasing demand for water, the expansion proposed to construct a large-scale reverse osmosis seawater desalination plant at Point Lowly in Upper Spencer Gulf. The water would then be pumped north to the Olympic Dam mine site and Roxby Downs township. The proposed plant's location remains controversial due to the proximity of the proposed brine discharge to critical breeding habitat for the Giant Australian Cuttlefish, which are sensitive to increases in ocean salinity.
In February 2012, Arabana elder Kevin Buzzacott legally challenged the Commonwealth Environment Minister Tony Burke's environmental approval of the Olympic Dam mine expansion. 'Uncle Kevin' was represented by the Environmental Defenders' Office and appeared in the Federal Court in Adelaide on 3 and 4 April 2012. His case was dismissed on April 20, 2012. An appeal of the judge's decision in 2013 was also unsuccessful.
In July 2012, more than 400 people joined the Lizard's Revenge protest at the Olympic Dam site. The anti-nuclear activists, including Elder Kevin Buzzacott, protested against the mine expansion and the uranium industry. They say the company and the government have put short-term economic gain ahead of environmental and health concerns. Organiser Nectaria Calan said police harassed protesters, demanding identification and controlling access to and from their campsite.
The original development of the mine also attracted public opposition from Australia's anti-nuclear movement. Hundreds of arrests occurred at and around the mine site during a variety of actions and demonstrations in 1983 and 1984. The protesters alleged that they had been provoked by police and that they had been unfairly represented as the antagonists in various media reports.
BHP Billiton's deferral
In August 2012, BHP Billiton announced that the expansion was being postponed indefinitely pending investigation of a "new and cheaper design". The South Australian Mineral Resources and Energy Minister, Tom Koutsantonis in response to this announcement stated "they will be developed (and) it will bring a great deal of prosperity." However the Premier, Jay Weatherill, warned BHP "given that this is the second time they have disappointed South Australians, there can be no doubt that this community permission will come at a (greater) cost" next time.
In December 2013, the Federal Government expressed its support for the revival of the Olympic Dam expansion project. The announcements were made in the wake of news that General Motors Holden would be ceasing its car production operations in South Australia in 2017. Members of South Australia's business community believe that the state's future prosperity should not be dependent on the Olympic Dam expansion proceeding and have expressed the need for Government to support a diversified economy.
The Olympic Dam mine works an extremely large iron oxide copper gold deposit with estimated reserves of 2.95 billion tonnes of ore grading 1.2% copper, 0.04% uranium, 47.2 million oz of gold and 566.4 million oz of silver.
The deposit was originally discovered by Western Mining Corporation in 1975 near Roxby Downs Sheep Station and production officially commenced in 1988. It now belongs to BHP Billiton, which acquired WMC Resources in 2005. The mine currently operates by an underground mining method called sublevel open stoping, using modern and highly productive mining equipment. The March 2005 mine production rate is an annualised 9.1 million tonnes making it one of Australia's larger mines. 2005 metal production is thought to be in excess of 220,000 tonnes of copper, 4500 tonnes of uranium oxide, plus gold and silver. The copper and uranium oxide are exported through Port Adelaide. Most of the mine workers live in the nearby towns of Roxby Downs and Andamooka. Regular flights between Adelaide and the Olympic Dam Airport serve the mine project.
The Olympic Dam mine is South Australia's single largest consumer of electricity, and is connected to the grid via Port Augusta. In 2009, BHP Billiton defined its typical annual electricity consumption as 870,000 MWh.
The Olympic Dam mine uses 35 million litres of Great Artesian Basin water each day, making it the largest industrial user of underground water in the southern hemisphere. Water is pumped along an underground pipeline from two bore fields which are located 110 km and 200 km to the north of the mine. The salty bore water requires desalination before it is used. Contaminated water from mining operations is passed through a series of sealed ponds where it evaporates.
The high use of artesian water as a result of mine operations threatens areas of high ecological significance. In particular, the pumping of water from the bore fields has been linked to observations of reductions in flow or drying out in nearby mound springs. As mound springs are the only permanent source of water in the arid interior of South Australia a delicate yet intricate ecological balance has been established  with prolonged isolation causing the existence of many rare and endemic species.
Airborne pollution emissions from the Olympic Dam processing facility are reported annually to the National Pollution Inventory. Emissions exceeding 500 tonnes per annum as of 2013 are (from largest to smallest): particulate matter (10 um), oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide.
Public sector support
In 2006, the Government of South Australia established the Olympic Dam Task Force to assist BHP Billiton with their mine expansion plans. Paul Heithersay is the task force's Chief Executive and as of 2015 also serves as Deputy Chief Executive for the Department of State Development. Current and former senior public servants who have also worked on the Olympic Dam project as employees of BHP Billiton or Western Mining Corporation include Richard Yeeles and Kym Winter-Dewhirst.
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- South Australian History
- Infomine Minesites
- BHP Billiton
- Social and Ecological Impact of Water Extraction for a Copper-Uranium Mine
- Olympic Dam Project on mining-technology.com