Mt Isa – a mining town
Mt Isa mines, which is owned by Xtrata, is a huge operation. The main mine and processing infrastructure sits on the western edge of town. The metals extracted from the area include silver, lead, zinc and copper
As big as the mine is, the whole infrastructure is to be demolished over the next 3-4 years as the ore bodies beneath this part of the mine are worth many more millions of dollars than the buildings. The removal of these buildings will allow for the creation of a super pit which will be over 5km long and provide ore for the next 70+ years.
At present the mine is working at a depth of 2800m. The lift that gets the miners to the workings has two decks, each of which carries 92 people. The lift descends at a speed of 63km/h to level 22 which is at a depth of about 1000m. From there the workers are taken to their worksites in Toyota vehicles. These vehicles only last two to three years because of the very difficult conditions under which they operate. Once no longer serviceable they are crushed, presumably by some vehicle larger than themselves, and pushed into a worked out stope which is then back-filled. Why does the mine keep using Toyotas, when they only last a few years? They outperform and outlast any other comparable vehicle. Apparently there is billions of dollars worth of equipment that has been dealt with in this manner, buried underground.
The mine produces its own pollution which is expelled from four large chimney stacks but as the prevailing wind is westerly, this pollution is blown away from the town and out into the dessert. It is said that the copper content of this smoke is the reason why the Western Red Kangaroos out in the Simpson Desert are a coppery colour!?
There is a small mine which was abandoned many years ago a little further into town. Xtrata has set this old working up as their training centre for new workers and as a visitor experience. Called the ‘Hard Times Mine’, it was not given that name for the obvious reason but because it was the name of the dog that belonged to the prospector who discovered the mine!
Visitors are taken underground where all facets of a day in the life of a miner are experienced. We had to don safety gear which included a bright orange set of coveralls, a helmet with light and gum boots. We really looked as though we meant business.
We were ushered into a cage which lowered us into the mine, down a distance of only about 20 metres, and certainly not at the speed of the real thing. It was a rather sedate descent, with of course, the obligatory ‘power failure’ and therefore unscheduled stop. This all fell a bit flat as most of us had been underground before and were up with the tricks the lift operators get up to.
Underground there were all the usual things from reo bolted to the walls and ceiling to prevent cave-ins, to vehicles and various drilling apparatus. The miners don’t like the reo bolted into the rock as they preferred the old wooden props which they say ‘talked’ to them. This gave the experienced miner a warning of trouble ahead. The metal doesn’t talk until it fails; then it is all a bit too late! It was a great tour with the two and three quarter hour experience coming to an end all too quickly. It is, however, as close to being a miner I want to get.
We were not permitted to take any cameras below ground.
One comment that has to be made is about the size of the meals served around town. They are huge and rightfully so for a workforce which expends so much energy all day, every day. But, for us poor pensioners, the thought of having to wade through the colossal plate full of food is all a bit daunting. Mind you, most of us manage, but I think it is mainly because we were brought up to eat what was put in front of you and not waste food. Please, more buffets, where portion control is our business.
Two of our group have lived in The Isa in the past. B.. was an R and D manager and lived in the town for 8 years, the other, S…, was the wife of a mine worker. They decided that they wanted to reminiscence and have a look at their old homes so we jumped in a taxi and ventured into the suburbs. This took us off the beaten tourist track and gave a pretty good idea of the real Mt Isa. This turned out to be a worthwhile exercise for us all, as they found their respective houses in equal or better condition than they remembered them.