New Australia Mining Boom Taking Toll on Outback Life

Hope Hamashige in Port Hedland, Australia
for National Geographic News
September 26, 2007

As manager of the Port Hedland visitor's center, Kelly Howlett's main responsibility these days is telling travelers to bring a tent if they plan to spend a night in the area.

"I feel awful when people walk in here," she said. "I have no choice but to tell them to get back on the road, because there's no place to stay."

Port Hedland, the biggest town in the region of Western Australia known as the Pilbara, is at the epicenter of a massive Australian mining boom. (See a map of the Pilbara region.)

The rush to extract minerals like copper, aluminum, iron, and gold to feed skyrocketing Asian demand has provided billions of dollars in revenue for mining companies, millions in royalties for the government, and a boom in high-paying jobs.

One of its unforeseen consequences, however, is that hotels and youth hostels are completely filled with the flood of mining company employees who work in nearby iron-ore pits.

The mining boom is also straining the industry's relations with the area's aboriginal inhabitants, raising questions about the toll on the area's desert environment, and leaving locals feeling the pinch of rising land values and shrinking tourism revenue.

(See a photo gallery of the mining boom's effects.)

Modern-Day "Gold Rush"

All across Australia, mining companies are expanding current operations, searching out new prospects, and reopening shuttered mines at an unprecedented pace to feed Asia's growing hunger for materials.

But no place compares to the Pilbara, which houses one of world's largest stashes of high-quality iron ore, along with large deposits of natural gas, uranium, coal, diamonds, and metals. (Related: "World's Oldest Diamonds Discovered in Australia" [August 22, 2007].)

"The Pilbara just keeps getting bigger and bigger," said Gavin Mudd, a civil engineering professor at Monash University in Clayton, Victoria.

Rio Tinto, the largest producer in the Pilbara, has doubled production there since 2002 to 150 million tons. The company anticipates exporting 320 million tons a year by 2014.

Continued on Next Page >>


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