THE Western Australian nickel industry is waiting for a rationalisation of the besieged laterite projects, particularly the fate of the Cawse mine, owned by Joseph Gutnick’s Centaur Mining.No company is more interested in the future of Cawse than Heron Resources, which is proving increasing reserves of nickel at its nearby Goongarrie deposit, and had planned to have 12,000 tonnes of contained metal processed at Cawse.Managing director Ian Buchhorn is still confident that Goongarrie ore will be treated at Cawse – whichever owner appears – but also is examining other options for the high grade deposit.One option is treatment at WMC’s Kwinana refinery, but Mr Buchhorn emphasises that neither party has made a commitment to this plan.In its latest quarterly publication, Heron Resources points out that it has sought to end a strategic alliance agreement with Centaur, but this did not affect the prospect of working with a new owner of Cawse to treat ore at its plant.Kalgoorlie is buzzing with speculation about how Cawse may be brought back into production, and which company might pick it up as an entrée (admittedly not without serious challenges) into the lateritic nickel industry.The gold city gossip places the value of the project at between “almost nothing”, in the words of one skeptic, and a figure of $100 million.It will be some months before the likely outcome is known. Along with Anaconda’s TV soap-like row with Anglo American, it hardly gives the new, struggling lateritic industry a good name.Mr Buchhorn remains unfazed by the upheavals, confident that the growing reserves of high-grade nickel on his tenements will lead to at least one arrangement for its treatment.He points out that Heron Resources has sufficient funds to continue drilling its sprawling tenements while the industry is rationalised (or stabilised) and is confident that the project’s reserves will increase.He notes that several years ago there were 35 companies exploring for lateritic nickel. There are now only two – Heron and Anaconda.The rest have withdrawn, many to become dot.com companies. The result has been that Heron has picked up dozens of tenements, including a pattern which runs for 150km through the eastern Goldfields.“Where once our tenements looked like a patchwork quilt on a map, they are now a solid blanket,” Mr Buchhorn said.Heron now had 406 million tonnes of ore, inferred and indicated, with a grade of 0.8 per cent nickel and good cobalt values.However, a current objective was to delineate three which would have grades of about 1.5 per cent. The quarterly report points out that the resource at Goongarrie was “premium nickel laterite ore, able to improve the metallurgical performance” of the pressure acid leach plants used in the laterite process.If an agreement was reached with WMC, Heron could produce a nickel hydroxide, with about 60 per cent contained nickel, that would bypass most of the processing steps at the Kwinana refinery, providing obvious benefits for WMC.The Kwinana refinery had a capacity of 60,000 tonnes of nickel a year, but this could be expanded ultimately to 100,000 tonnes, nearly a third of which could come from laterite mines.WMC has made it clear it could accept partly processed nickel from other lateritic and sulphide mines, an attractive option for new ventures seeking to avoid the high cost of treatment plants of their own.
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