Some towns have gone, but others have diversified from iron ore to cattle farming and new businesses
Three hours from the centre of Western Australia’s iron ore industry, a scrubby patch of ground stands as a reminder of what happens to mining towns when the money moves on.
The patchy outline of a football oval is all that’s left of the town of Shay Gap, which once had a population of 650. Lang Coppin, an East Pilbara shire councillor whose family runs Yarrie Station, where the town was built, can spot it when he flies over the area in his helicopter – but that’s only because he knows where to look.
“You will drive past there now and if you didn’t know where the town was you wouldn’t believe it,” Coppin said. “You wouldn’t know you went past a town that once had schools, football ovals, shops.”
Founded by Mount Goldsworthy Mining Associates in the early 70s as a worker hub for nearby iron ore operations, Shay Gap closed two months after the mine ceased operation in February 1994.
Twenty years on, residents of the Pilbara’s small regional towns are again circling the wagons against a plummeting iron ore price which has seen junior miner Atlas Iron Ore put its operations on hold and prompted job losses at larger companies such as Fortescue Metal Group (FMG), BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto. All three large miners have been put on negative watch by the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s.
Newman and Tom Price, both a few hours’ inland from the Pilbara hubs of Port Hedland and Karratha, are no longer on mining company land, like Shay Gap was, but still have the feel of company towns.
The Newman townsite was established by the now defunct Mount Newman Mining Company in 1968 to support the iron ore mine at Mount Whaleback, and was wholly owned by the mine until 1982 when it was opened up and handed over to local government.
Mount Whaleback was BHP’s first WA mine and, at 5km long, is the largest open-cut iron ore mine in the world.
Tom Price, 275km to the west, is a Rio Tinto town. Peter Foster, a local councillor for Ashburton shire, said at least one person in every household worked for the mining company. The rest work in service industries such as health and education, or for local businesses, but when the mining job goes, so does the family.
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