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Nickel potential for Esperance

ESPERANCE Port Authority is eagerly awaiting the outcome of the Ravensthorpe Nickel Project feasibility study which, should it get the green light, would provide a major boost to trade through the port.

A positive outcome from the study would mean a need for increased infrastructure at the port, including shipping conveyors and a storage shed.

But Esperance Port is already well placed to handle the increased trade, having last year completed a $52 million upgrade of facilities.

A delegation from BHP Billiton will visit the port this week as part of the final stages of a feasibility study into the proposed $950 million nickel operation.

An announcement by BHP Billiton is expected in the first quarter of 2004.

The proposed Ravensthorpe Nickel Project would significantly contribute to exports through Esperance Port – already the largest nickel exporting port in the Southern Hemisphere.

BHP Billiton spokesman Brian Watt said the Ravensthorpe project was entering the final stages, having already received government environmental approvals and undergone extensive community consultation.

He said BHP Billiton representatives, including the company’s president of stainless steel materials, Chris Pointon, would inspect facilities at the port this week as part of the feasibility process that also includes site visits and visits to the shires of Esperance and Ravensthorpe.

The project is expected to generate up to 220,000 tonnes of nickel concentrate exports annually through Esperance. This will be shipped to BHP Billiton’s Yabulu processing operation in Townsville, Queensland, for refining.

In addition, 470,000 tonnes of sulphur would be imported through Esperance for use in on-site processing requirements at Ravensthorpe.

The BHP Billiton throughput would add to the growth in nickel exports through the port following recent finds by explorer Western Areas. This would mean further expansion of storage and handling at the port, long-time CEO Colin Stewart said.

“They [Ravensthorpe] would require a large storage facility to store the sulphur that comes in. They import sulphur, which they take out to the mine that they turn into sulphuric acid, which they use for cooking the ore,” Mr Stewart said.

“But the mining company Portman that exports iron ore out of here is also talking about the need for a fourth shed.”

He said the port upgrade was a crucial component in the region’s ability to attract and secure major projects.

“If Ravensthorpe Nickel had gone ahead and we hadn’t already done this development … we would have run out of capacity both in [terms of] land and equipment,” Mr Stewart said.

“We are now really well placed to handle Ravensthorpe Nickel’s project should it proceed.”

Portman Mining’s Koolyanobbing project contributed the most significant commodity to the port in the form of iron ore, which accounted for 53 per cent of tonnages through the port. Other major commodities were grain (26 per cent) and nickel concentrates (6 per cent).

Esperance Port is one of several WA ports to have undergone a major upgrade in recent times on the back of resources development. Last year $54 million was spent at Esperance on land reclamation, new berthing, and storage and handling facilities.

This followed Cooperative Bulk Handling’s $68 million upgrade of grain handling facilities at the port in 2000.

Grain is the port’s second largest export group, although grain exports through Esperance Port declined due to the drought in rural areas.

Iron ore exports were up 64 per cent in 2001-02, exceeding 4,000,000t for the first time. There was strong growth in nickel concentrates from Mt Keith, Cosmos, Black Swan and Emily Ann mines.

Major client Portman Mining covered $35 million of the latest debt through a take-and-pay contract, and infrastructure fees.

Portman’s announcement on September 30 this year that it had secured board approval for the $20.3 million Koolyanobbing expansion project was further good news for the port.

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