Ten Richest Mining Districts in the World – by Stan Sudol

Attention Readers: This column was originally published in 2004. A lot has changed and many new discoveries have been made. Is this list still accurate? Please send in your revised lists and reasons for the revisions and I will be happy to post them. In addtion, if someone can supply me with the top ten richest gold, zinc, iron ore, silver, copper, nickel etc. mining regions, I would post them as well. (The lists can only include currently operating mines.) Please note, unless you object, I will include your names.

Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant, who writes extensively about mining issues.(stan.sudol@republicofmining.com)

Mines that would make King Solomon happy

What is the richest mining camp in the world? Finding out where the most valuable deposits are and if any Canadian sites would make a top 10 list is not easy.

The main issue when identifying a top mineral-producing region or deposit is how big an area do you include? The term “mining camp” appears to be a distinctly Canadian definition that describes a small area. Most of the mining world defines mineralized areas as belts, basins, provinces and districts.

For the sake of this comparison, I have taken “journalistic license” with my boundary definitions that some geologists may disagree with. However, my reason for putting together the article was to put the value of northern Ontario’s mineral resources in a global context, so please tolerate this “apples and oranges” comparison.

This list does not include coal, industrial minerals or diamonds. It is graded by value of commercially extractable metals including historical production and known reserves. In addition, the deposits must still be in operation.

Coming in at the No.10 spot is the Laramide Porphyry copper cluster of Arizona, New Mexico and Sonora (Mexico). The Morenci open pit, located in southwest Arizona, is the largest copper-producing operation in North America, and majority owner Phelps Dodge Corp. has been mining this rich deposit since the 1880s. At Safford, Ariz., close to Morenci, Phelps Dodge is also working on another development that is reputed to be the largest undeveloped porphyry copper mining district in the world. The United States is the world’s second largest producer of copper.

The Hamersley Iron Basin in the isolated Pilbara region of Western Australia is the ninth richest mining district on our list. Iron is a relatively abundant metal that is the foundation of much of the urban infrastructure we see around us including bridges, railroads, skyscrapers and transportation vehicles. This tremendously large deposit, discovered in the 1960s, has established Australia as the third largest producer in the world. Within the Pilbara region there are 22 iron mining and processing operations employing almost 9,000 people.

Sudbury Basin – the richest in North America

Coming in at No.8 is northern Ontario’s legendary Sudbury Basin, an oval geologic structure 60 km long and 30 km wide. The deposit was first discovered in 1883 during the construction of the national railway. Today, this region supplies 15% of global nickel production as well as significant quantities of copper, platinum group metals, and cobalt.

The basin’s 11 operating mines, owned by Inco Ltd., Falconbridge Ltd. and the FNX/ Dynatec joint venture, together form the largest and richest mining district in North America. With the ongoing commodity boom and nickel shortages, Sudbury is currently one of the most active mining camps in Canada and the United States.

Many geologists feel the basin will still be producing significant quantities of metal for another century. Falconbridge’s half-billion-dollar development of the Nickel Rim South property and a major mineral discovery by Inco at Kelly Lake–richer than any other mined in the company’s Ontario Operation–confirm Sudbury’s untapped potential.

The No.7 spot goes to another iron producer. It is the gigantic iron ore deposits of Brazil’s northern Carajas region. The Carajas Iron Province is an elephant deposit containing almost 18 billion tons of high-grade iron ore. It has sufficient reserves to guarantee production for about 400 years at current levels. The deposit was discovered in 1967 by a helicopter mineral survey crew on an emergency refueling stop. Brazil is the second largest global producer after China.

Australia holds the sixth spot with the rich bauxite deposits at Weipa, Queensland. Although bauxite, used to make aluminum, is one of the most abundant minerals in the Earth’s crust, the Weipa deposits are enormous. Discovered in 1955 by geologist Harry Evans, the miles of reddish bauxite cliffs found on the Cape York Peninsula contain approximately one-quarter of the world’s known reserves of this valuable mineral.

These discoveries along with other major deposits in the Darling Ranges have made Australia the world’s largest producer of bauxite and the largest producer and exporter of alumina. Comalco Ltd., owned by Rio Tinto plc, has a lease on the 1.2 billion tonnes of economically recoverable ore. It is estimated that an additional 2.2 billion tonnes of ore is in the ground.

Chile – the copper king

The Central Andes is one of richest copper-producing districts in the world. The region surrounding the Chilean capital of Santiago is No.5 on the list. The world’s largest underground copper mine, El Teniente 80 km southeast of the capital, as well as Rio Blanco and Andina to the northeast have been included in this geological region. El Teniente is a classic porphyry copper deposit that began operation in 1905 and is owned by the state mining company Codelco. Rio Blanco began production in 1925, while Andina was not discovered until 1970.

Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper, providing about 40% of global production. El Teniente is at the southern end of the Central Andean Porphyry Belt, which is about 2,000 km long and traverses Chile, Bolivia and Peru. There is a series of major mineral clusters in this prolific belt, the exact boundaries of which are open to debate.

We must revisit Chile, in the northern Atacama Desert, to find the planet’s fourth richest mining district, the Northern Andean Porphyry Belt. It includes the enormously rich copper mines of Chuquicamata and Escondida. The geology and structure of both mines are part of the same regional fault system that is 200 km long. In between are many other copper mines that, when combined with these two elephant deposits, solidify the Antofagasta region’s status as the world’s richest copper-producing area. Chuquicamata is named after the Native American Indian group, the Chuqui, who worked the copper deposits in pre-Hispanic times. The modern mine started production in 1915, and during the 1990s was the largest producing copper open pit in the world. That title has been taken over by the Escondida mine, which began operations in 1991.

South African geological treasure chest

The third richest mining region is South Africa’s amazing Witwatersrand Basin. Roughly centred around and to the south of Johannesburg, the Witwatersrand Basin is a 350-km by 200-km sedimentary basin. The incredibly rich gold-bearing reefs of the Witswatersrand were discovered in 1886. About 40% of all gold ever produced in the world comes from these deposits. Much of this precious metal is buried very deep and is mined at depths of up to 3.6 km.

South Africa was the world’s largest producer of gold in 2003, followed by Australia, the United States and China. The gold industry is significantly important to the South African economy, being the country’s major export and greatest earner of foreign currency.

The frigid isolation of Siberia’s Taimyr Peninsula is the location of the second richest mining region in the world. The Norilsk-Talnakh deposits contain nickel, copper and excellent grades of platinum group metals, making them one of the planet’s outstanding metal concentrations. In fact some orebodies contain 6 to 12 g/t platinum group metals compared with Sudbury’s 1 g/t PGMs.

The deposit was discovered during the 1920s, with nickel production starting during the Second World War. The community of Norilsk was originally a Soviet penal colony, and political prisoners built the first mines and smelters. With a population of about 230,000, Norilsk is the largest city above the Arctic Circle, and until recently was closed to outsiders.

Finally, the No.1 mining region is South Africa’s incredibly rich and famous Bushveld Complex, located just north of the capital, Pretoria. As the world’s largest layered igneous complex, the Bushveld is one of the Earth’s geological wonders. The complex is the world’s greatest resource of the platinum group metals, chromium, vanadium and titanium, which occur in layers or reefs extending over hundreds of kilometres. Eighty per cent of the planet’s platinum and 75% of chromium reserves are located here.

Measuring 350 km across and 300 km north-south, the Bushveld was formed about two billion years ago, and discovered in 1924 by Hans Merensky. South Africa is the largest producer of platinum group metals, followed by Russia, Canada (principally from the Sudbury Basin), and the United States.

There were many other mineral deposits or districts that came close to making it in the top ten list. They include Poland’s Legnica-Glogow Copper Basin with its rich copper and silver deposits; South Australia’s Olympic Dam, the world’s largest copper/uranium mine; the gigantic and rich open pit copper mine in Bingham, Utah and the Mesabi Iron Ore Range in Minnesota.

In addition, the fabulously rich gold/copper deposits at Grasberg and Porgera would probably be included in a top twenty-list, as would the Carlin-type gold deposits in north-central Nevada. The enormous deposits of nickel laterites on New Caledonia, when they are fully developed, may also put that small South Pacific island on this exclusive list.

By monetary value, estimated at more than US$200 billion, the incredible Central African Copper Belt would have easily made the top ten list. This 600 km long and 50 km wide arc of copper mineralization stretching through Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo has historically been a major copper and cobalt producer.

However, political instability, war, nationalizations, and a host of other problems have severely curtailed mineral production. Containing more than 10% of the world’s copper reserves and about 34% of global cobalt deposits, it holds enormous economic potential for these two impoverished countries when stability and good governance are established.

Mining continues to create enormous wealth

These elephant deposits or highly mineralized districts generate enormous amounts of wealth, provide many jobs and contribute to a higher standard of living for the host country. In addition, mineral development helps open up isolated regions by establishing modern transportation and communications infrastructure.

For over a century, the Sudbury Basin and other northern Ontario hard-rock mining camps have been an extraordinary economic engine for the regional economy as well as establishing Toronto as the undisputed global leader in mining equity and financial investment.

With the rapid industrialization of China, India and other developing nations the need for mineral products will continue to grow. According to the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, over the next 50 years the world will use five times all the mineral supplies that have ever been mined up to the year 2000. The vast unexplored expanses of northern Ontario north of the French and Mattawa rivers contain 80% of the province’s geography. How many more Sudbury Basins remain to be discovered in one of the richest geological regions of the world?

Special thanks to U.K-based Dr. Tony Naldrett (one of the foremost experts on the Sudbury Basin), Mike Porter of Porter GeoConsultancy Pty. Ltd. in Australia, and the many folks at the United States Geological Survey in Reston, Va., especially Daniel Edelstein, George J. Coakley and John Jorgenson.

Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant, executive speech writer and freelance journalist who writes extensively on mining issues. [stan.sudol@republicofmining.com]

District                                                        Country                 Value (US$ billions)
1 Bushveld Complex                                   South Africa          1,430(A)
2 Norilsk-Talnakh                                      Russia                       916(A)
3 Witwatersrand Basin                              South Africa             777(B)
4 Northern Andean Porphyry Belt*        Chile                          526(B)
5 Central Andean Porphyry Belt             Chile                          466(B)
6 Weipa bauxite deposits                          Australia                  400(C)
7 Carajas Iron Province                             Brazil                        380(D)
8 Sudbury Basin                                         Canada                     368(A)
9 Hamersley Iron Basin                            Australia                  350(D)
10 Southwest U.S. copper cluster            U.S.A.                      224(B)

* This figure is for only the Chuquicamata and Escondida mines.
(A) Statistics from Tony Naldrett using metal values: US$5.00/lb Ni, US$1.00/lb Cu, US$18.00/lb Co, US$800/oz Pt.
(B) Statistics from U.S. Geological Survey using metal values: US$1.25/lb Cu, US$400/oz Au, US$5.00/oz Ag.
(C) Statistics from GeoScience Australia
(D) Statistics from U.S. Geological Survey using iron ore values: US$0.33/ton (Carajas-65% yield) (Hamersley-62% yield)