Mining a Meteorite
Copyright© 2010 by Pedant
I spoke with Rob on Saturday and he told me to meet him at the airport on Monday morning and that he'd arranged "everything." So I just packed my sample kit and a duffle bag. No jacket, no ties.
Dampier lies just about 1000 kilometres due north of Perth. It took just over two hours in the small commuter jet. Actually, we flew into Karratha, the "bedroom town" for the port. Out of the window, the coastline was green, but that gave way to barren and then the Hamersley Range, which appeared dark red. Iron ore and iron dust, I presumed.
95% of Australia's iron ore occurs in Western Australia, and Australia is the world's largest exporter of the mineral. Australia and Brazil supply about 60% of the world's production. Iron ore was first discovered in Western Australia in 1952 in the Hamersley Range near Newman. The mine is world's largest open cut iron-ore mine.
Iron ore is now the largest individual mineral sector by value, accounting for 30% of the value of the Western Australia's resources output in 2006. Some 250 million tonnes of iron ore with a value of some $14.6 billion was exported from WA in 2006. Iron ore mining contributed some $774 million in royalty payments to the State Government in 2006.
"Sleeping?" Rob asked.
"No. Just thinking about how little I know and how little I understand. Like, how does the ore get to Dampier?"
"Hamersley has a freight rail line: Yandicoogina and Marandoo to the east and Brockman No. 2 to the west are on spurs that intersect the line that runs north from Tom Price to Dampier. There's also narrow gauge to Port Lambert."
"Hmm. So our crooks would have to tie in to the rail line?"
The wharf at Cape Lambert stretches for 2.7km, built to a minimum of 17.87metres above the water. It is the tallest in Australia. The wharf holds or shares every Australian bulk handling record. Cape Lambert is the site of massive iron ore production and port facilities.
"That doesn't sound easy. And what about Port Hedland?"
"BHP Billiton's got Iron Ore – a railway from its mines to Port Hedland."
"Does anyone run tippers?"
"I've seen them. I think there are some at Paraburdoo. That's south of Tom Price and is owned by Hamersley and the Chinese government. There might be some at the smaller mines – Robe River or West Angelas. Why?"
"Just thinking. Where are those?"
"Robe River is a bit west. It's got a rail line north, too. West Angelas is south of Newman. I'd guess they'd truck to the railhead at Newman."
"Hmm." I felt the plane bank. "Here we are!"
"Yes. There'll be someone here to meet us. Don't be rattled by anything. Just be Gordy the entomologist, my son-in-law."
There were two blokes waiting, one was around 50, the other was my age. They were introduced as Ferd and Jim. We shook hands, got into a car and were hustled to the Best Western ... about five minutes.
"Want to wash up?"
"Yes," said Rob. Ferd handed him two keys and said they'd meet us in the "lounge."
We paused at our (adjacent) rooms and I said "five minutes." At that time I was outside my door when Rob exited and we walked to the lobby where "Lounge" was visible. Ferd and Jim had acquired a third bloke who was wearing a Navy blouse.
"Hey, Gordy! I never expected to see you here!"
"Hello, captain. How have you been?"
"You know one another?" asked Ferd.
"He was best man at my buddy's wedding," responded the captain, whose name I couldn't recall. "Not only that, but he's a naval officer."
"Are you really?" asked Jim.
"I guess so. I did a chore or two for Commander Evans before he retired."
Rob smiled at the two: "I guess that puts the okay on him, eh?"
"Whatever Perk says is okay with me," said Ferd. That's who he was: Perkins!
"Me, too," said Jim.
"Okay," said Rob. "So we're Gordy, Jim, Ferd, and Perk and I'm Rob. Now, I'm consulting for Billiton and Fortescue; Gordy's my expert; Perk's with the Navy; Ferd's with Billiton, too. What about you, Jim?"
"Ministry of Tax. I deal with multinational corporations operating in Australia."
"Fine. So we've two from industry, two from the government and Gordy."
"I'm a bit odd," I said. "I'm with the CSIRO, the University of Western Australia and the Navy."
"He knows a lot," said Rob. "He puts things together. He notices things."
"Like lac beetles," said Perk.
"Let's go elsewhere, have some beer and some tucker," said Ferd. "Gordy, go with Perk; Jim and Rob, come with me. Trawler's okay?"
It was late for lunch, early for dinner. The place wasn't crowded – in fact, there was hardly anyone there. We got a large corner table, menus and beers.
Well, gents," began Perk, "it's clear that we've got a problem. Anyone have any ideas?"
"Well," said Ferd, "I don't think it's being shipped through here. I think it's going through Hedland."
"Interesting," I said. "I think so, too."
"Really. Why?" asked Rob.
"Well, I want to actually see what goes on tomorrow, but if the ore gets loaded into gondola cars at the various mines, and they come up to Dampier and get dumped, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of opportunity to add hundreds of tons of ore."
"Good point," said Jim. "So what do you think is going on?"
"I don't know. I'm just guessing that the ore that comes direct from mines isn't the problem. I'll need more information to make other guesses."
"This may be dangerous," said Perk. "I could issue you with arms."
"No!" I said. "If we have firearms, we're a threat; if Rob is just an old guy and I'm a nutty insect collector, we're no threat at all."
"Makes sense. But we won't even know where you are if there is a problem. Let me think about this, I'm sure there's an easy solution."
Our orders came, we ate and each had another beer. Ferd paid.
"How early do the trains start unloading?" I asked.
"Can we get out there?"
"Sure. But I'll have to take you. Few strangers are interested in the dust and noise."
"How about 8-8:30?"
"Can we get breakfast at the Best Western?"
"Good, then someone take us there. Can we all meet again tomorrow afternoon? Say at five – uh – seventeen hundred?"
We had an ample, but uninteresting, breakfast and just sat for a while chatting. Rob told a few stories from their trip, I brought him up to date on Patrick. We were interrupted by Ferd, who wanted to know whether we were ready. He asked whether we had goggles and produced two pair of plastic eyeprotectors. "Takes care of our liability insurance," he said.
"Sorry," I said, "I know you work for BHP Billiton, but what's your job?"
Rob laughed. "My fault. Ferd's the GM for export."
"That's a big job."
"They don't make me handle the ore, luckily. But. all in all, I've got over 5000 people working in this division."
"Helps me understand your concern."
"Get in the Range Rover and we'll try to get you to understand even more."
I sat in front with my kit on the floor and read the signs. We drove through Baynton to Gap Ridge. The Karratha-Dampier Road turned northwards and suddenly we were riding parallel to the tracks. There was a sign that said "Dampier," but we veered eastward. We were now on Parker Point Road and the signs and fences and a guard hut let us know we were leaving the public area.
Ferd stopped, spoke with the guard and said he was taking us out to see the jetty.
"But two gettin' loaded, today."
"More than enough. These blokes are from Perth. Never seen a big 'un."
"Right." He opened the gate and Ferd pulled forward quite slowly. I noted a few enormous yellow and orange trucks.
"Ore carriers. They do the fillin' in. Carry only 30 to 50 tonnes. We don't use 'em much here. There are hundreds over at Hedland."
I could see a small complex of sidings, switch engines and strings of gondolas. The was a glint of water to both sides and then, abruptly, we were at the point. The track and the road continued across a spidery embankment. We drove on and there was a triangular area with a few cars and two shacks.
"We'll walk from here." We got out and I became aware of the noise and that the bulk ahead and on our right was the stern of a very large vessel. There was a lot of noise. "Goggles, guys."
We walked about 50 metres further.