Nickel players active

DRILL testing has commenced in one of Australia’s most hotly contested nickel sulphide frontiers, the West Musgrave region 1,300 kilometres north-east of Perth.

First in are the region’s two major rivals, who once fought a battle over some of the prized ground.

Melbourne-based Western Mining Corporation began drilling a month ago, while WA-based West Musgrave Mining will commence in a few weeks.

While nickel is the main target, West Musgrave Mining recently turned up some bonus copper and gold samples, reporting a 300-metre long outcropping vein with 5.36 grams of gold per tonne and 7.17 per cent copper.

BHP Billiton also has been attracted to the territory, last month forming an alliance with West Musgrave Mining to fund half an initial $2 million exploration budget through premium-priced equity placements.

Meanwhile, BHP Billiton is proceeding towards bankable feasibility on its planned Ravensthorpe nickel development.

Other companies are also progressing nickel project plans in several WA regions.

ReLODE, also in the West Musgraves, is keen to secure additional ground there and has recently reached agreement with the Ngaanyatjarra Land Council to explore some of its territory.

Western Areas has commenced diamond drilling to test extensions to a high-grade find at its Forrestania nickel suplhide project.

Western Areas managing director Julian Hanna is hoping results will boost the life of an underground mining operation planned for the company’s New Morning prospect.

Sally Malay Mining has in hand a bankable feasibility study for its nickel-copper/cobalt project in the East Kimberley, and a heads of agreement with Jinchuan Group and Sino Mining International for some project finance and the purchase of all ore.

First concentrate is scheduled for shipment from Wyndham in the first quarter 2004.

Independence Gold recently purchased the mothballed Long nickel mine near Kambalda from WMC and plans to bring it back into production by the end of the month.

Sulphide nickel miners Mincor Resources and Titan Resources are producing near Kambalda and Karratha respectively, Mincor having acquired two mines from WMC.

Jubilee Mines this month announced a farm-in to a syndicate formed to explore and mine the Randles Find nickel sulphide resource in the northeastern Goldfields.

This new interest is adjacent to another nickel and base metals venture in which Jubilee is also earning equity, and 100km south of its Cosmos nickel mine.

Underground production is planned from Cosmos mid next year.

Acclaim Exploration has been lauding processing advantages for its upgraded Wingellina nickel laterite resource, while Heron Resources is seeking feasibility and project development finance for a North Kalgoorlie nickel laterite project, to incorporate its Goongarrie and Kalpini resources.

Laterite producer Anaconda Nickel wrote down the carrying value of its Murrin Murrin operation this year during debt restructuring and recapitalisation negotiations, but also reported a $14.3 million operating profit in the six months to June 30.

AME Mineral Economics has reported growing demand from first-use nickel customers in the stainless steel industry, following last year’s 5 per cent drop in consumption.

AME pointed to increases in stainless steel production during the second quarter of this year, with Taiwan’s production rising by 24 per cent and Europe’s by 6.5 per cent.

Following all-time lows, prices have also picked up during 2002, but there remain some concerns that Russian export levels could supplement surplus supply.

Sulphide production costs have fallen, in particular in Canada and Australia, with Western Mining’s costs reportedly falling by 25 per cent over the past five years.

Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA president Peter Lalor said the local nickel industry had gone against the recent consolidation trend of the mining sector.

While the mining industry had changed dramatically through amalgamation – in particular in the gold sector – nickel had diversified from being very much a WMC-run business.

There were now more than a dozen operating nickel sites in WA, varying greatly in size and run by a host of companies.

Issues the nickel sector faced were the same as those confronting the whole mining industry, which, as the key driver of the State’s economy, would consequently impact on the State, Mr Lalor said.

Of most consequence to the industry was the large number of impending reports, changes and ongoing reviews on issues including workers’ compensation, work hours, approvals processes, exploration, safety and sustainability policy.

As yet there was little in policy outcomes from these reviews, but if these proved to be negative for the mining sector and were to come all at once, the State’s economy would also be adversely affected.

The Mine Safety and Exploration Act review had serious implications for how safety was managed in the mining sector, Mr Lalor said.

The industry would be presented with a huge change were it to report to WorkSafe rather than the current dedicated inspectorate within the Department of Mineral and Petroleum Resources.

“The nickel industry has a very good safety record,” Mr Lalor said. “It’s not perfect but it’s improving, particularly in underground mining.”

Safety was an ongoing mining sector concern and the debate surrounding work hours needed to focus on such issues, rather than become an uncontrolled one, he said.

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