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Renaissance of a golden era

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It's a little known fact that Herbert Hoover, the thirty-first President of the United States (1929-1933), was one of the many who had tried and failed to extract gold from the Victorian goldfields. Better known for his role as the first mine manager of the Western Australian Sons of Gwalia gold mine, Hoover spent millions on behalf of Consolidated Deep Leads in the early 1900s on failed deep lead mining projects in Loddon Valley and Moolort, both a short drive north of Ballarat. “They just couldn’t pump the water out,” explains Peter McCarthy, managing director of AMC Consultants and avid Victorian gold mining history enthusiast.

Many other companies, large and small, have tried to tap into the elusive gold veins still believed to be richly filled with the 99% pure nugget-like gold typically found in central Victoria. Michael Tuck, discipline leader and a senior lecturer in mining engineering at the University of Ballarat, says that “everybody knew there was still gold here. But you have to know where to dig. That’s why the Bendigo and Ballarat goldfields have spent so much on research. They had to get the research right to avoid any unnecessary drilling.”

The Ballarat region is buoyed by the recent success of the Stawell-based MPI operation, which is currently the only gold producing mine in the area. After years of feasibility studies and collaborative research, Melbourne University, MPI and the Centre for Ore Deposit Research (CODES) pinpointed rich deposits in the Stawell fault. Bendigo Mining and Ballarat Goldfields NL have also spent decades developing their own feasibility studies. It’s been a 50-year hiatus for Bendigo, and an even longer 84-year hiatus for Ballarat, but the much anticipated ‘rebirth’ of the Victorian gold mining industry has finally begun.

Of the expected expenditure of nearly $2 billion on new resource projects in Victoria over the next few years, Ballarat Goldfields already has $27 million to spend on the Ballarat East project, and Bendigo Mining has accrued a substantial $115 million for its New Bendigo project. Despite the slow start, results will be quick. McCarthy, who is currently working as consultant to Bendigo Mining, says that “Bendigo will be in production by the end of next year”.

Ballarat Goldfields expects that the low-cost mining of Ballarat East’s new ore zones will yield around 200,000 ounces of gold a year. While research has indicated that the New Bendigo project has the potential to yield a total of nearly 13 million ounces of gold, beginning at around 80,000 ounces per year and reaching over 500,000 ounces a year in less than ten years. “I think ten years hence that Bendigo will have a bigger mine than Ballarat,” McCarthy informs, “but Bendigo was always a bigger mine than Ballarat”.

Like Hoover, McCarthy began his career as a mining engineer. From Broken Hill in the 1970s he went on to become the mine manager for the developing Sovereign Hill mining technological museum. During his short stay in Ballarat from 1978-1980, McCarthy became one of the co-founding directors of Ballarat Goldfields, and stayed with the company until it floated in 1985. Located 3km south of Ballarat, the Ballarat East gold mine is now owned by Rio Tinto and operated by Ballarat Goldmines. Like the Bendigo operation, the locals are completely oblivious of the movement underground as the Ballarat East mine gradually makes its way towards the centre of town.

Local residents have not always been so oblivious to the mining industry’s activities in the area. The industry once dominated every aspect of life in the region. Gold was first discovered in Ballarat in August 1851, and by 1853 the region was awash with 20,000 drovers-turned-miners. The support industries arrived soon after. Then hundreds of companies formed to exploit the deep quartz lodes when the shallow alluvial deposits ran out in the short decade from 1850 to 1860. A recession hit the industry in 1870, and many of the newly formed mining companies dissolved. Ballarat’s last mine closed in 1917, leaving behind a legacy yield of nearly 21 million ‘recorded’ ounces.

Ballarat’s mining industry has changed significantly since 1951. Barely 2,000 mining staff and just a handful of companies operate in the area today. “The scale has changed,” McCarthy explains, “instead of thousands working in mines there are now hundreds”. Technology is the key factor behind this change. As mines become increasingly automated, the greater the skill level required of a miner. “It did not change much at all from the 1850s to the 1970s,” McCarthy says, “I think a miner from the 1950s could have walked into a mine in the 1970s and said ‘I know this’. It all became mechanised. A miner is now a skilled operator.”

Self-proclaimed ‘The Golden City’ in the 1880s, the region’s mining heritage turned Ballarat and surrounding areas into a major tourist ‘gold mine’. Each year, thousands of tourists visit Sovereign Hill, the Eureka Centre, the Gold Museum and the Ballarat Art Gallery which houses the battered orginal Eureka flag in a darkened dim-lit room. Local and state-wide celebrations of the 1854 Eureka Stockade rebellion, where miners fought for basic civil rights, will be held from 26 November to 5 December 2004 with the help of $1.3 million allocated by the Victorian State Government.

Although it’s unlikely that Ballarat will recapture some of its glory as a major gold producer to the scale of the 1850-1860 gold rush days, Don Larkin, the CEO of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Exploration (AusIMM), believes that region’s “future is not tourism, it’s in the mining deposits underground”. It is expected that the Bendigo and Ballarat operations will create over 500 jobs in each community, as well as inject hundreds of millions annually into the local economy. It is hoped that the Bendigo operation will be one of Australia's biggest gold producers in the future.

According to Michael Tuck, Ballarat East’s existing (but basic) infrastructure, which has both water treatment facilities and a mill, is in good shape. But a substantial amount of Bendigo Mining’s initial $115 million funding will be dedicated to infrastructure due to the site’s lack of a mill or water treatment facilities. Both operations will require additional funds to drill down further to achieve their future per ounce aims. Tuck, a former coalface worker and Nottingham University mining engineering PhD graduate, believes that Ballarat is an ideal testing ground for “smarter” mining practices. “When I first arrived in Ballarat six years ago, it (the industry) was just a play on the stock market,” he says with a smile. “I’d be happy to see a mine back in Ballarat.”

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