Saturday, May 31, 2008

Olympic Dam--the world's largest to-be

An article in this weekend's Financial Review ($) drew my attention to the Olympic Dam expansion project. On the project website it is called "one of the world's most exciting mine projects", which is an understatement even for a modest Chinese.

Olympic dam ranks as the largest mine in Australia as it is. According to wiki "mine production rate is an annualised 9.1 million tonnes. March 2005 metal production is thought to be in excess of 220,000 tonnes of copper, 4500 tonnes of uranium oxide, plus gold and silver.

What will happen after the expansion project? "Further development is planned to take the mine production rate to some 40 million tonnes per year and 450,000 tonnes copper metal and 14,000 tonnes per year of uranium oxide (wiki)." In fact 500,000 tonnes copper metal is the current number used in both the Financial Review article and the project's EIS site. But BHP has a even bigger plan, "In a staged expansion, annual ore production will increase up to 70 million tonnes. If the expansion proceeds, copper production will increase from approximately 180, 000 tonnes a year to approximately 730,000 tonnes."

If you think the Olympic Dam is a wonder/monster right now, it will grow into something almost eight times as big in terms of annual production. What does this growth mean to the environment?

Take water as an example. "The Olympic Dam mining and processing operations currently use on average 35 megalitres per day of water... The proposed expansion may require up to an additional 125 megalitres per day (EIS site)." Where is the extra water going to be come from? Among other proposals there is a desalination plant, something of not only environmental concern but also an energy guzzler.

Speaking of energy the expanded mine will suck up roughly 30% of South Australia's power needs (jumping from 120 megawatts to about 300-400 megawatts of additional power), eliminating any chance the state had of reaching any future emission target, according to the financial review article. Here comes the most impressive bit from the same article, "To remove the 350 meters of overburden sitting atop the Olympic Dam orebody, BHP will need to move an astonishing 1 million tones of rock a day for up five years--a process that won't generate any revenue."

Of course this is part of the story. What about the stress the mine put on the State's infrastructure? Also the people in the mining town of Roxby Downs where a population projection of 10,000 was made (current population 4,500)?

The Australian spokesman for BHP Billiton says the company's Olympic Dam expansion is on track to become the world's largest mine by 2010 (ABC).

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