For almost half a century the port in the name Port Augusta has been symbolic – a legacy of the city’s formation and growth through the 1800s and its importance as an early shipping hub for commodities including copper, coal, wool and wheat.

Positioned at the head of South Australia’s Spencer Gulf and a geographical gateway to the outback, Port Augusta hasn’t had a commercial shipping industry since 1974.

Its closure that year brought to an end more than 100 years as an important shipping hub for inland South Australian industry, usurped by newer technologies and the move to diesel-powered rail by the local rail operators which lessened the need for coal imports.

The site went on to house coal- red power stations. The Northern Power Station was constructed in the 1980s and was a local industrial icon in its own right until closure in May 2016 – the last coal power station to close in South Australia.

Demolition work aside, the site has laid dormant in the almost three years since.

Now, an ambitious miner is planning to put the port back into Port Augusta courtesy of a $250 million investment.

CU-River Mining, a privately owned company with a significant pipeline of iron ore interests in the region, announced in February its plan to purchase the site of the power station with the intention of reintroducing commercial shipping to the Spencer Gulf.

The agreement between current site owners Flinders Power and CU-River covers the purchase of a 1068-hectare site – around the size of the Adelaide CBD – with a $250 million port facility capable of handling iron ore and other commodities planned for the spot.

Under the plan, barges will be loaded at port then sailed into the deeper waters of the Spencer Gulf, where they will stock larger cape-sized vessels with a capacity of 175,000 tonnes.

CU-River views it as an opportunity to secure its export future in the region, according to the company’s External Affairs Manager Shelaye Boothey.

“Our expansion plan is going to see our headquarters based in South Australia for many decades to come,” she told National Mining Chronicle.

“Part of that significant strategic decision to purchase the site was because we really wanted to secure our own export pathway. By 2026 we plan to be mining 15 million tonnes of high-grade iron ore, which should continue 25 to 30 years into the future.

“We wanted to secure an export pathway to allow us to get that magnetite out, but we also wanted to see it as a multi-user facility, providing commercial shipping opportunities for the Spencer Gulf and the far north.”

One of two iron ore producers in South Australia, CU-River is no stranger to revival. The company purchased the mothballed Cairn Hill magnetite mine 55km south-east of Coober Pedy from the administrators of Termite Resources in 2014, bringing it back online in 2016 and hitting its million-tonne production target in 12 months of operation.

Mining is currently on hold at Cairn Hill while expansion approvals are assessed, with the miner looking to bring the project’s output up to three million tonnes per annum over four to eight years.

Ms Boothey said the anticipated increased output wouldn’t have worked with the export system the way it was. Add the Snaefell and Tomahawk greenfields projects expected to come online in the mid-2020s, and output is expected to increase dramatically over decades of mine life.

“We produced a million tonnes of magnetite at Cairn Hill which was exported through Port Adelaide, but Port Adelaide just doesn’t have the capacity we need moving forward,” Ms Boothey said.

There’s benefit too in the existing infrastructure included in the sale of the Port Augusta site – the key critical infrastructure currently available includes a 5km rail loop, a conveyor belt system, dump pockets and a sea wall.

A 270-hectare ash dump site currently being rehabilitated by Flinders Power has been identified as a potential large-scale solar farm – unheard of in the port’s previous iterations, but a more than desirable inclusion in the 21st century environment.

The regional mining benefit is expected to spread broader than just CU-River’s projects and, given the size of the facility, the company hopes to share the port load as mining interests in the region develop.

“In the far north you have some very large iron ore projects, ours and others, coming online,” Ms Boothey said.

“We may also soon see quite a large copper facility developed around the current Roxby Downs site, and then to the east you’ve got the Braemar iron ore deposit where several smaller mines may also come online.”

CU-River expects to start shipping from Port Augusta within two years.

Community caution

While there is excitement around the prospect of commercial shipping returning to Port Augusta, there is also some reluctance from a public which has come to love the Spencer Gulf the way it has been since industry last left.

“I think people just look at our Spencer Gulf, which has not been used for this type of activity for some time, and straight away they imagine a big barge coming down the gulf which they are very protective of,” Port Augusta City Council Mayor Brett Benbow said.

“They want to make sure that’s not going to impact on the flora and fauna of the Spencer Gulf or upset any waterways, which is a natural concern. As soon as you mention ore or coal or any of those types of products, everyone thinks of dust.

“Straight off the conversation will be about those two things, and they will be covered o  very quickly to calm any concerns which may be there.”

Part of the plan to allay public concern is the arrangement of monthly meetings between council and CU-River, while the council is encouraging the miner to place an information shop in the Port Augusta CBD for ease of information flow.

A consultative group established when the Flinders Power site shut down will be maintained.

Meanwhile, the project is expected to be a boon for jobs in the region.

“I think it’s fantastic for the economy, not only that initially it’ll employ about 150 people while they get set up, but it’s looking at about 100 full-time employees in the stevedoring area,” Mr Benbow said.

“Not only that, there’s opportunities for the smaller businesses – supply and earthworks and things like that – to prepare the area for what they do and possibly provide ongoing work for local business.”

Image: A historic photo of Port Augusta in the 1880s. Credit: State Library of South Australia PRG 1373/39/13.