THE State Government has extended a 30-year lease, which was due to expire at the end of 2003, that includes several large, un-tapped bauxite deposits in the Kimberley region.
State Development Minister Clive Brown says he wants to have made a final decision over the future of the Mitchell Plateau bauxite reserves by the end of February.
Under the Alumina Refinery (Mitchell Plateau) Agreement, the leaseholders – a joint venture consisting of Alcoa Australia, Rio Tinto and AngloGold – were required to develop the bauxite reserves, establish bauxite mining and beneficiation operation and an alumina plant.
This requirement has not been undertaken and discussions between Mr Brown and the leaseholders regarding the resource’s future have so far been inconclusive.
Although the 370 million tonne bauxite deposit was discovered more than 30 years ago, and is of a higher grade than bauxite in the Darling Range, there has been little interest in developing it because the Kimberley bauxite is more refractory and difficult to process.
However, Mr Brown said recent outside interest shown in the resource, understood in part to be Russian, has encouraged the Government to make a decision.
The key issue with the resource, he said, was whether the resource was economically viable. At this stage that issue remains undecided as none of the partners will comment on the resource’s characteristics.
“Being economically viable does not mean it’s economically viable for the joint venture,” Mr Brown said.
“It means it’s economically viable for a group to take it forward – now what we need to do that is to test that assumption.
“This is the choice we could be asked to make … are [we] prepared to lock up the resource for ‘X’ period of time or are [we] prepared to explore the prospect of the resource being developed?”
Despite the Government’s call for a final decision to be made, the agreement has been renewed several times previously.
A spokesman for the joint venture would not reveal the company’s position, but said discussions were continuing.
However, Mr Brown gave an indication that a resolution was close, saying he was tired of seeing the issue on his desk every month and he would like to see it resolved, “one way or another” by the end of February.
“I see the public interest being properly applied by testing out whether there is a real prospect of the resource being developed,” Mr Brown said.
“State agreements are not there for land banking, [they are drawn up] for the purpose of developing areas.”
There is also an Indigenous population in the Mitchell Plateau area, with whom the joint venture partners say they are working closely.
Part of the Mitchell Plateau was recently subjected to the 59,903 square kilometre Wanjina/Wungurr-Willinggin Native Title claim and the 7229sq km Ngarinyin Native Title claim, between Derby and Wyndham.
Late last year a Federal Court decision gave the Native Title claimant groups exclusive rights over some of the areas claimed.
The court also decided that the people would have non-exclusive rights over other parts.
The Mitchell Plateau is also subject to another claim by the Uunguu people, however that is yet to be decided.
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