We traveled from Exmouth to Broome two days ago and stopped in Port Hedland to refuel and take a quick tour of the town and port. The Traditional Owners called the area “place of good water” but today it is more the place of good iron ore, with over 70 million tons shipped out of the port each year. With major ore players like Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, the port has the highest tonnage shipped in all of Australia. And from the air, it shows; just in April, 2012, over 14M tons of ore was shipped out of this port.
Over 20 trains run each day from the mines 100 km East of town. There were 6 ore carriers being filled when we were there and almost 30 ore carriers at anchor offshore waiting to be filled. Seems they can not dig enough ore fast enough to fill all the carriers. With most of the ore going to China, the trip is short, turnaround is fast. Lot of money changing hands. In 2011, Rio Tinto did $29B in revenue. We heard from our pilot Andy that they were expanding the port capacity by 4x — means more of the same: trains, equipment, ships and people to do all the work.
There are around 10,000 workers who work the mines and port that go on/off in two week shifts working 12 hour days. After that they all fly out, head home. Typical mine workers make $100K/year compared to the average income of $55K in the region. We encountered a similar economic situation in the Mississippi Delta below New Orleans where the traditional way of life was “augmented” by one wage earner working the oil/gas job and the other doing more traditional job such as fishing, restaurant, cultural work. I always wondered if it was the “short term” best of both worlds. Clearly this lifestyle is on the rise in NW Australia.
After a week here in WA, I have found people warm and accepting, easygoing and aware of what is happening in their world. The news here is about the Woodside LNG plant and the Stop The Gas movement, about more mines and trains and ships to move the ore in Port Hedland and more gas wells, supply ships, workers filling the hotel rooms in Exmouth. The WA Government in Perth calls this progress and it is a form of progress- better jobs, schools, healthcare. Our question is what about the marine and coastal ecosystems – what’s in it for those creatures? We are here two more weeks to dig deeper into life and the choices ahead for those here in Western Australia.