A history in shifting sands: North Stradbroke Island

By IM Staff
Published: Thursday, 14 April 2016

Mining is to end on the world’s second largest sand island. In response to community, Aboriginal land rights issues and environmental concerns, a draft proposal was released by the Australian Queensland Government last December outlining the eventual closure of Sibelco’s mining operations on North Stradbroke Island.

By Cameron Perks, IM Correspondent 

Silica and heavy mineral sand operations have been present on Stradbroke since the 1940’s, with a variety of companies mining it since the outset. Consolidated Rutile Limited (CRL) floated onto the Australian Stock Exchange in 1965 in order to raise funds for the acquisition of mineral rights from Stradbroke Rutile, as well to fund construction of a mining and milling plant. 

 Stradbroke Island_Sibelco_SOURCE_SaveStraddie.com
Stradbroke Island today (Source: Save Straddie)
CRL was the relative newcomer when it pegged what were then considered to be lower grade leases of around 0.6% rutile. 
In 1984, CRL outlined what it perceived as the challenges of operating on the island. Those challenges were broadly similar to today’s concerns over environmental sustainability. 

The cessation of mining on Fraser Island, implemented by the aptly named Fraser government in 1976, got CRL wondering if this anti-island-mining trend might reach Stradbroke. In that same report outlining the logical concern expressed for the future of sand mining operations across Australian islands, the author gives a resolute 'no’ to the question whether it could ever happen on Stradbroke saying "North Stradbroke Island has a 30 year history of mining, so a degree of tacit acceptance or equilibrium has been established there between the mining and environmental groups. This is particularly shown in the very positive reactions given to our recent expansion announcement."

Later in 1998, Iluka would become a majority owner of CRL acquiring 51% of its shares. 2008 marked the last time any detailed reporting of resources and reserves for the island were released. It was estimated then that 360.6m tonnes of proved and probable reserves existed on the island with 0.9% heavy minerals having an assemblage of 47% ilmenite, 11% zircon and 14% rutile. 

In terms of resources, a measured, indicated and inferred resource was calculated to be around 616m tonnes of ore with the same heavy mineral and assemblage content as the reserves.
In 2007, Iluka announced that CRL had produced 79,000 tonnes of rutile, 174,400 tonnes of ilmenite and 60,600 tonnes of zircon; the highest figures achieved at the site since 1998.

At the time of Iluka’s involvement, CRL had two dredging operations and supplementary dry mining on the Yarraman and Enterprise ore bodies. It wasn’t until 2009 that Iluka divested its interests in CRL, with a Unimin takeover of around $84m. Unimin is and was wholly owned by Sibelco, and in 2011 Unimin Australia and New Zealand adopted the parent company name of 'Sibelco’. 

Iluka estimated in late 2010 that CRL produced an about 9% of the world rutile market share at a time when Iluka produced 32% of the world’s rutile market share. The supply picture has changed a lot since then with Iluka now representing about 9% of the world titanium dioxide (TiO2) production.

Shifting sands

The supply picture has changed a lot for Stradbroke as well, with the then-operating mineral-sand Yarraman site ceasing operation in August 2015, now subject to rehabilitation. While Sibelco still mines the mineral-sand Enterprise ore body, the third ore body on the island, a silica sand mine called Vance, has been non-operational since 2013. 

Sibelco blamed Vance’s closure on a high Australian dollar, a sales slump and increased competition in the silica sand market. Vance is managed on a campaign basis to suit customer needs. It produces high-quality silica for use in glass applications (such as the I-O glass bottle plant at West End in Brisbane, formerly ACI) and windscreens, plasma TV screens and solar panels.

The mining lease for Enterprise makes up 3,235 hectares or 13.2% of the island, with active mining being undertaken on only 400 hectares, or 2% of the island. While mining takes up only a small portion of the island, public discussion and debate about the interconnected issues of mining, Aboriginal land rights, and the environment have been ongoing for many years. 

Successive governments initially proposed to permit mining activities in the North Stradbroke Island Region until 2035 and later proposed a phase out of mining activities by 2019. In 2010, the Labor Government put legislation in place and made a promise to the region’s Quandamooka people—through a landmark Indigenous Land Use Agreement—to substantially end mining activities in the north Stradbroke region by 2019.

However it has taken until now for the government to release a tangible strategy for the transition of Stradbroke Island’s economy to one without mining. The government is focusing on the tourism industry, the education and training sector as well as helping existing businesses develop. As part of this strategy, $5m would be invested to assist quarry workers affected by the industry’s closure to find alternative employment and training opportunities.

The government strategy has made tourism the first focus, expressing what opportunities there are for developing the industry. Alongside this are challenges, namely the need for private investment, fluctuating seasonal visitor numbers, infrastructure capacity during those peak periods, inconsistent quality of tourism products, and the lack of easy access from tourist departure points, including Brisbane City.

Draft plan

Legislation to enable the strategy’s implementation – the North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015 – was introduced to Queensland Parliament late last year at the same time as the draft plan’s release and is currently part of an ongoing parliamentary inquiry.

In a submission to the inquiry, Sibelco argued that the Queensland Government’s draft strategy was "wholly inadequate" to support the island’s economic transition to a quarry-free future by 2019. Sibelco claims that the plan will result in a loss of up to $100m in net benefits for the state as well as the loss of more than $15m in mining royalties and taxes for the native Quandamooka people, saying that there is insufficient time between now and 2019 for implementing the government’s strategy.
Sibelco’s submission concluded with a recommendation that the region’s sand quarrying activities end "no earlier than 2027".

The Queensland Resources Council (QRC) expressed similar concerns about the state government’s proposed timing. The council’s submission stated that the current plan would result in the loss of up to 160 jobs that could not be adequately offset by the jobs that would supposedly be generated by the transition strategy.

QRC noted in its submission that it considered Bob Katter’s North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability (Renewal of Mining Leases) Amendment Bill 2015, which was introduced to Queensland Parliament in October 2015 as a private members’ bill, to be a "reasonable attempt at a compromise".

The bill wants to end mining by 2024, as opposed to the current 2019 proposal, Sibelco’s 2024 proposal, or previous Newman Government 2035 proposal. The bill would allow for rehabilitation of land in the region until the end of 2029, without the removal of the mining leases.

The QRC has commented on this, saying that "although acknowledging the private members’ bill as better than the government’s bill, we continue to commend Sibelco’s 2015 proposal for a 2027 closure as a superior option to both bills."
The Queensland Parliament’s Finance and Administration Committee has been tasked with the inquiry, which has now closed for submissions. 

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry Queensland (CCIQ) has also called for a five-year extension of the 2019 end-date for sand mining on North Stradbroke Island citing a small business community concern over how long it might take to actually build up a thriving tourist industry.

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