Anyone for a Super-Port? South Australia’s great iron ore export bungle

While the South Australian government has been a strong financial backer of mineral exploration in recent years, South Australian citizens and miners alike are yet to reap the promised economic rewards of the pending mining boom. This is due in part to the State’s inability to provide leadership in the development of bulk commodities export solutions of suitable capacity, scale and most importantly from an environmental standpoint, location. It should be in our state’s economic interest to provide a new port which can service Chinamax and VLOC classes of ships, in order to deliver the best possible price per tonne to our miners and State coffers. SA already stands at a geographical disadvantage to the more mature mining regions of Western Australia and Queensland, being the further-most state from our South-east Asian customers.

So if we’re not getting a Port Hedland-esqe super-port, what are we getting? Well, let’s begin with the pending expansions of existing ports. These include the ports of Whyalla (operated by the newly-named Arrium, formerly Onesteel), Port Pirie (Flinders Ports) and Lucky Bay Harbor (Sea Transport). Each of these ports will facilitate the export of iron ore by the slow and often messy method of transhipping. Put simply, transhipping involves ferrying ore out to larger vessels in barges which are then loaded at sea.

Port Bonython

Geographically sited between these ports and to the north of Whyalla on the Point Lowly Peninsula is the site of the proposed Port Bonython. At face value, and from the State and the iron ore miners’ perspectives, this appears to be a promising alternative to nearby transhipping operations. Plans published by the Spencer Gulf Port Link consortium have described a projected export capacity of over 50,000,000 tonnes of iron ore per year with up to 3 berths. A rail-link and conveyor system would load ore directly into Cape-sized and Panamax vessels. The reality is somewhat compromised though, as the proposed jetty drops into the end of a virtual maritime cul-de-sac of highly constrained ‘deep’ (20m) water. The proposed location has also enraged Whyalla locals concerned about the amenity of the popular Lowly Peninsula. Not to mention the conservationists who are appalled that the proposed jetty runs right through the heart of the world-famous mass breeding ground of Sepia apama, the Giant Australian Cuttlefish. You can find out more about the conflict with the proposed Marine Park Sactuary Zone at the Port Bonython site in our previous post. Also please note- on the map of Upper Spencer Gulf below proposed Marine Park Sanctuary Zones are outlined in red.

Future Upper Spencer Gulf Iron Ore export pathways

Future Iron Ore export pathways in Upper Spencer Gulf, South Australia

Lucky Bay Harbor

Ninety kilometres to the south-west of Whyalla on the western shore of Spencer Gulf, another peculiar port development is proposed. Iron ore junior miner Ironclad Mining have teamed up with Sea Transport to expand the Lucky Bay Harbor to facilitate containerised transshipping. This facility currently supports the Wallaroo to Lucky Bay passenger ferry, and the adjacent community is a small cluster of coastal homes behind the dunes on a strip of beautiful sandy beach. As the diagram below shows, the nearest transhipment point (where ore will be transferred from barge to Panamax vessel) is a mere 700 metres from a proposed Marine Park Sanctuary Zone. It is also likely to displace marine birds which currently live on the beach south of the proposed development, who are accustomed to no more than one movement of the existing passenger ferry per day. According to the project proposal documents, a hardstand of containers will become a permanent feature on the foreshore, and b-triple trucks will be delivering and returning containers to the site every 24 minutes. Our question is: if this is only a short-term solution for the immediate use of a single corporate client, why is the State supporting it as a Crown Sponsored Development, which declares it a Public Infrastructure project? Could it be expressly to expedite the development, and minimise the environmental groundwork and public consultation rigor expected of more suitable assessment processes? At the painfully slow loading rates described in their project proposal documents, it could take Ironclad 239 years to export their defined 263,000,000 tonne resource via this method alone. We think it’s safe to say they’ll be considering alternative export pathways as they emerge.

Lucky Bay Iron Ore Transhipping and adjacent Marine Park sanctuary zones

Lucky Bay Iron Ore Transhipping and adjacent Marine Park sanctuary zones

Port Spencer (previously known as Sheep Hill)

One such alternative is Centrex Metals’ proposed Port Spencer, located between the towns of Port Neill and Tumby Bay. Presenting itself as a bulk commodities port capable of conveying grain and iron ore onto Cape-sized vessels, this is the one the iron ore miners of Eyre Peninsula are hedging their bets on. Unfortunately, like Port Bonython, there are fundamental problems with the project’s location from a social and environmental standpoint.

The project site sits on the doorstep of Lipson Cove, and a kilometre from the Lipson Island Conservation Park. The inshore island is an important rookery for marine birds, including the beloved Fairy Penguin. This site is dearly beloved by locals, tourists and nature-lovers of all sorts, who can even walk across to explore the island conservation park at low tide. Cast your eyes over the map below and you’ll see the obvious conflict with existing use and natural heritage values. Please consider there is no light pollution or sound pollution at this site at present and the Lipson Cove Coastal Management plan reminds us that roosting marine birds require as little disturbance as possible. Equally noteworthy is Centrex Metals’ desire to expand this facility beyond the current Stage 1 as seen below, augmenting it with a 137 ML/day desalination plant and an additional berth (presumably with increased if not double the projected throughput of vessels).

Port Spencer proposal, Lipson Cove and Lipson Island Conservation Park

Pump up the volume

So disregarding the southward developments of Lucky Bay and Port Spencer, where are we heading with shipping in Upper Spencer Gulf? Well, if Port Bonython expands as projected and exports 50-70 million tonnes of iron ore annually, and the ports of Whyalla and Pirie hit their respective targets of 12 million and 20-30 million tonnes per annum respectively, we’re looking at a massive increase in Cape-class shipping into the environmentally sensitive region. The majority of these vessels will be coming from China, and will linger in the gulf, dumping their foreign ballast water, introducing invasive species in the process, fishing without regulation from the decks of their vessels, and contributing to unprecedented congestion in the region. The Gulf features an undulating seafloor with a narrow central channel presenting shoal bottle-necks which must be passed by riding on high-tides. If mines and ports proceed at their projected pace we are likely to see the iron ore export industry single-handedly responsible for over 450 cape-sized vessels entering Upper Spencer Gulf annually. If risk of potential shipping accidents are managed by reducing the size of the vessels to Panamax, the number of vessels will increase, shifting the nature of the risk away from potential groundings towards increased opportunities for potential collisions.

Net result? Economic, Social and Environmental compromise

One thing that is plain to see, most notably in the Port Spencer, Port Bonython and Lucky Bay Harbor developments, is that compromise is the order of the day. Social and environmental interests are on a clear collision course with short-term economic interests. With a messy, sprawling ‘every man for himself’ approach to building South Australia’s mineral export capacity, even the mining companies economic hopes are compromised. Surely a suitable site for a super-port with the capacity to service Chinamax or VLOC class vessels (bigger than Cape-sized) off the west coast of Eyre peninsula should be considered. Can South Australia demonstrate the visionary leadership to improve the economic prospects of emerging iron ore exporters, and save Point Lowly, Lucky Bay and Lipson Cove from new environmental and social impacts in the process?


Dan Monceaux is a South Australian documentary filmmaker and the director of Cuttlefish Country.

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