Mining a Meteorite
Chapter 1

Copyright© 2010 by Pedant

I was at the office by nine, not knowing just how early Rob would get underway. There would be traffic, too, so it might take two hours. I chatted with Mona for a few minutes, got a cup of coffee and went to my desk to throw away most of the messages and mail.

There was nothing urgent among the phone slips and the inter-office portion of the mail was all trash. I was looking at Wilson's Insect Societies when Mona buzzed and said that "Mr. Scott" was here. It was after 9:30, but not much after.

"How are you? How's Mary?"

"We're fine. Both fine. Do you mind if I just get to brass tacks? I'm really on edge about what I'm going to tell you. And I need help. This is all confidential, isn't it?"

"Of course. Of course. Calm yourself a bit. Do you need coffee?"

"Not now. Your assistant already offered."

"Okay. Tell me what's up."

Rob took a deep breath. "You know I consulted with BHP and Rio Tinto?" I nodded. "I also did one or two things for Fortescue. Well, I presume that you realize that many millions of dollars worth of iron ore come out of the Pilbara. And most of it gets shipped out of Port Hedland. The rest goes through Dampier." I nodded again. "Well, here's the problem: when the Ministry added up the tonnage of what was shipped last quarter, it came to more than the sum of what had been mined. In fact, it was more than had been authorized."

"So someone counted the trucks or the freightcars wrong."

"Sorry. No. When I ran the nickel mine, we knew to the hundredweight how much came out in the trams and how much got loaded on the trucks. The numbers they looked at meant something was really awry. And it's bad." He leaned back and took another deep breath.

"OK. Let me see whether I really get this." I paused and collected my thoughts. "Some group is mining iron ore and exporting it. They don't have permission to mine and we don't know exactly where they're doing it. But it's many tons and they are cheating the taxman and may be disrupting the ecology somewhere. And they may be violating some aboriginal land rights."

"You got that really fast. And pretty much right. There may well be other bad things – like water table disruption – but you've got a good handle on the problem. There are a few more facts, but they can wait."

"Where do I come in?"

"Well. Last week I was asked whether I could visit some of the sites and see whether anything appeared to be – uh – off."

"Fishy?"

"Exactly. But the more I thought about it, the less likely it appeared that there was funny business going on at Tom Price or Lestok Pilbara or some other well-known mining site. There is hanky-panky, but I don't think it's in these places."

"And?"

"I thought you might like to travel around the Pilbara and east towards the Northern Territory. I was hoping you might be able to think of some sort of naturalist ruse for the trip. Looking at the insects, maybe. Or at the ants in particular."

"Might work. In northern Australia, ants are widely used by your mining industry to assess the extent to which mine sites have been successfully restored."

"How about the craters? Do meteor craters have different insect populations from the area around them?"

"I don't know. Why should they?"

"I don't know either. But it's a reason to look. And you could stop to put things in bottles from time to time."

"Hmmm. I don't know whether anyone's done something like that. We could look at Shattuck's Australian Ants."

"Are there a lot of kinds?"

"No. Not many. The dry arid zone of central Australia is occupied by only about 25 genera of ants." I thought for a bit. "Are there a lot of craters?"

"Some. Wolfe Creek about a hundred kilometres south of the Halls Creek mines and Goat Paddock west of there. There's one further west – southeast of Tom Price and southwest of Nullagine."

Although it has long been known to Aboriginal people, who called it Kandimalal, the Wolfe Creek meteorite crater was only discovered by Europeans in 1947, during an aerial survey. The rim diameter is 800 m and the distance from the rim crest to the present crater floor is 60 m. The age is approximately 10,000-20,000 years. The Dreaming tells of two rainbow snakes who formed the nearby Sturt and Wolfe Creeks as they crossed the desert. The crater is believed to be the place where one of them emerged from the ground.

Goat Paddock is a 5 km-diameter near-circular bowl-shaped depression in a range of gently dipping Proterozoic sandstone in the Kimberley Region of northern Western Australia, 106 km west-southwest of Halls Creek. It is an ancient impact crater, the evidence including breccia containing melted rocks, silica glass, shatter cones and shocked quartz. Drilling has shown that the crater was filled with about 200 m of ancient lake sediments containing Early Eocene pollen, this age thus giving a minimum estimate for the age of the crater itself (about 50 million years). The crater is not perfectly circular, but slightly elongated in a north–south direction, suggesting that the projectile struck at low angle from either the north or south.

"And that's all iron ore country?"

"Yes. More or less. Halls Creek was originally gold, I think."

"So how would we work this?"

"You'll do it?"

"Let's get a plan together, first."

"Right. Well, I thought we could fly to Dampier – or even to Carnarvon. If you want to see a really big mine, we could drive down to Tom Price, then east to Nullagine and up to Port Hedland. Then over to Halls Creek, south to Wolfe Creek and then..." he paused.

"Yes?"

"Then we'll have to consider our next moves."

"How long will it take?"

"Minimum a week; probably ten days or so."

"Hmmm. I think I can do it, especially if I get some specimens. But I'm not certain whether Weena will let me."

"Why not?"

"You said this was confidential. She's not going to let me traipse around with you if she doesn't know what we're doing."

"Let's go to lunch."

"Let me tell Mona I'll be back by two?"

"Fine."

We went for quick pizza lunch (actually, I had pizza and Rob had calzone). The place wasn't crowded, so I asked: "So you think that truckloads of iron ore are being stolen?"

"More than that. Illegally mined and stolen."

"Who might do that?"

"A foreign company or country."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously."

We finished lunch in silence. This was as grave as the people smugglers. Perhaps momentous if a foreign country was behind it. I wasn't at ease with this – yet I couldn't say 'no' to Rob. Finally, I asked: "Can I talk to Weena?"

"I suppose so. But emphasize that you're going on a field trip."

"I'm not about to lie to her."

"I understand that."

"And I'm going to have to clear a field trip with Canberra."

Rob looked yet unhappier. "I suppose so. Will you need to inform the Navy?"

Another surprise. "I don't know. I'd never thought about it. I think not."

"Will you talk to Weena today?"

"Yes. And Canberra in the morning."

I paid and drove back to the University. Rob clapped me on the shoulder. "I'll call tomorrow after dinner. Give Weena a kiss from me. And Patrick, too." He drove off.

Back in the office, I remarked to Mona that I missed doing any fieldwork. She said boys always wanted to get dirty and not have to wash too much. I fiddled with administrivia for about two hours and decided to go home. I was going to have to talk this through with Weena. Better sooner than later.

At home, the scene was one of pure domesticity. Martha was playing with Patrick and Weena was curled up on the settee, reading – an Upfield, it turned out.

"Torie, daddy?" Patrick was the first.

"Later, okay?"

"Kay."

"Hi, Gordy."

"Hey, Martha! Haven't seen you for two days."

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