DRAWN-OUT negotiations between a Rio Tinto-led joint venture and the Western Australian Government over long-held bauxite deposits in the Kimberley region have concluded for the time being with the joint venture agreeing to allow the third party access to the deposits.
The significant announcement, after almost three months of involved negotiations with the joint venture partners – Rio Tinto, Alcoa Australia and AngloGold – will allow the Government to test whether there is any enthusiasm in the market to develop the Mitchell Plateau deposits.
However, the joint venture has also received an extension to the Alumina Refinery (Mitchell Plateau) Agreement.
The end of September 2004 has been given as a final deadline although the State has reserved the right to consider the matter after the deadline.
The Government’s decision gives nominated third parties physical access along with access to previously closed geo technical data on the estimated 370 million tonnes of bauxite.
The high-grade deposits have lain untapped under the 30 year old State agreement because of refining difficulties.
The Government has previously confirmed that unnamed parties interested in the deposit had pressured it to release the land.
Late Tuesday, Queensland miner Aldoga Minerals, which had already expressed an interest to develop the Mitchell Plateau bauxite resource, confirmed it was still interested.
“I’ll study what has been said and then determine what is needed to take it further,” Aldoga managing director John Benson said.
He said Aldoga, which is constructing a $2 billion alumina smelter in Queensland, was still actively pursuing bauxite and refining opportunities in WA.
Aldoga has already said it would conduct substantial feasibility studies on tenements it holds close to the Mitchell Plateau and had committed to constructing an alumina refinery in the State if it proceeded to mine any of its WA tenements.
Also, as part of the agreement, State Development Minister Clive Brown told WA Business News the joint venture would conduct a comprehensive evaluation study of the significant deposits.
A spokesman for the joint venture said consulting engineers Worley Astron would conduct a sizeable two-part evaluation study on the resource.
The first part of the study would focus on cultural and social issues while the second part would assess resource technicalities.
Parts of the Mitchell Plateau, including Aldoga’s ground are subjected to Native Title claims.
The spokesman said the study would be complete by the end of June and would cost several hundred thousand dollars.
“It is important that the viability of the Mitchell Plateau is tested again,” he said.
“We know what our time frames are but we don’t know what third party timeframes are.
“We also have not been formerly notified of any third parties interested in the ground.”
Mr Brown said he was pleased with the outcome as it would enable a wider view to be taken on whether it was economically viable to undertake the project.
He said while he was keen for the market to test the project he also wanted to respect the rights of the joint venture parties.
The large reserves of bauxite were discovered at Mitchell Plateau and Cape Bougainville in the Kimberley in 1965.
Although of higher grade than those found in the Darling Range, the Kimberley bauxites are more refractory and difficult to process.
The State Government extended the 30-year State Agreement, which was due to expire at the end of 2003, originally to the end of Febuary.
However since then a number of talks held between the two parties had been inconclusive.
Under the agreement, the leaseholders were required to develop the bauxite reserves, establish a bauxite mining and beneficiation operation and an alumina plant.
Mr Brown added that he was also keen to maintain the integrity of State agreements with any arrangements put in place.
Previously he had been critical of companies who use State agreements for "land banking".
Each State agreement is designed to facilitate a particular development that will benefit the State and the private proponent.
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