Roxby Downs: Living in an outback mining town

By Ken Eastwood 5 June 2009
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In the middle of Australia’s massive minerals boom, what’s life like in an outback mining town?

Roxby Downs Cemetary has nobody in it. Its iron gates are invitingly open, but no-one’s home – nobody above the ground; no body in it. The cemetery’s been there, 510km north of Adelaide, for nearly 20 years now and it’s still empty, bar a few scrubby mulgas in rust-red sand.

You could be forgiven for thinking the cemetery is unused because Roxby Downs – known as Roxby – has one of the youngest populations in the country. The average age is just 27. But, according to Roxby’s family and youth officer Tom Beever, the real reason tells you much more about this artificial outback town of 4200, which was surgically implanted in the heat and dust of South Australia’s interior to service the massive Olympic Dam mine. “It’s not because nobody dies here, it’s because no-one comes from here,” Tom says. “When someone dies they go back to their own town.”

As a sociological experiment, Roxby is fascinating – plonk thousands of people in the middle of nowhere, pay them relatively good money (average salary about $65,000), link all of them to the one employer and see how they get on. Some love it; many don’t. Every three years the town turns over about 70 per cent of its residents, according to town administrator Bill Boehm. “You’re a local here after 10 seconds,” he says.

Tom concurs. “When I came here five years ago I was told the most common sight in Roxby Downs is a furniture removal van,” he says. “And it’s almost true. People are often saying goodbye…and that’s hard – you get close to people and it leaves a big hole.”

People aren’t leaving because it’s particularly unpleasant. Sure, Roxby has its issues – alcohol-related violence, amphetamine use, relationship breakdowns, adult bullying and isolation to name some – but it’s a clean and surprisingly pretty town with a lot to offer. Wide, curved residential streets are lined by healthy gum trees; neat gardens are mulched with bark chips; and neighbourhood playgrounds and natural reserves weave through town. The main street has lush grass down the centre strip, leading to the cultural precinct with its 67-seat cinema and 25 m pool, water slide and children’s water-play area. Residents have a choice of 47 sporting clubs – from motocross to martial arts – and good mates are never further away than just over the back fence. It’s a clean, sterile town of unblemished aluminium cladding and graffiti-free Colorbond fences. Courteous drivers slow down or stop if they think you want to cross the road. Townsfolk, primarily Anglo-Australians, flash friendly smiles when you’re walking down the street. Women coo over babies in cafés, while their husbands work together at the mine.

Roxby Downs Map View Large Map

Elsewhere in Australia, people with the same large employer are often spread throughout suburbs or a city. In Roxby, you can’t get away from work colleagues. This unbreakable umbilical cord connecting Roxby to Olympic Dam feels more like a noose to some. They describe a condition dubbed “Roxby omerta”, in which people are afraid to talk about things upsetting them in case it gets back to their managers, or their neighbours, or both.

The town hasn’t evolved slowly from roots set deep in the landscape, so it almost appears to be soulless. But perhaps its soul is just hidden among the tatts and trucks, the upside-down class system, and among the singlet-wearing blokes who don’t mind getting on the turps or having a blue down the pub on Friday night (known as “fight night”).

It’s a town with one of the highest birthrates in the country and young families separated from support networks elsewhere. It’s a tough mining town that believes in the mantra ‘An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay’. It has people who love living in the bush, and those that have a three- or five-year plan to make shedloads of cash, and then get out.

And it’s a town that’s about to more than double in size as BHP Billiton’s copper and uranium mine, 16 km up the road, prepares for the biggest expansion in Australia’s mining history: from an underground mine to a cavernous open pit 3.5 km long by 3 km wide and 1 km deep.

Untold riches of Roxby Downs

In 1956, when Melbourne was abuzz with the Olympics, a small, unobtrusive farm dam was being excavated on a claypan among the saltbush, myall and mulga on Roxby Downs station. It was dubbed “Olympic Dam”.

Two decades later, Western Mining Corporation (WMC) began drilling in the area, looking for a large copper deposit that geological modelling indicated should be here. The investigators found more than they bargained for: the massive copper deposit – the world’s fourth-largest – along with the largest uranium deposit in the world.

Controversy ramped up alongside exploration and planning for the mine, particularly when the SA Government moved towards signing a 1982 Indenture Agreement that allowed WMC to mine the uranium and take up to 42 million litres of water each day out of the Great Artesian Basin – for no direct charge. Large-scale anti-uranium protests weren’t enough to sway David Tonkin’s Liberal government from signing the indenture, and Norman Foster – a staunch Labor man in the SA Legislative Council – crossed the floor to pass the bill. He was immediately thrown out of the party.

By 1988, when the underground mine was officially opened, it was employing around 600 workers and bringing more than 500 tonnes of ore to the surface every hour. Although copper was – and very much still is – the mine’s main product (generating about 70 per cent of its revenue), uranium oxide concentrate, or yellowcake, began to be exported from November of that year.

Conscious of the need to attract and keep workers, WMC planned and built Roxby Downs on a gently sloping plain to the south of the mine, bringing in mainly aluminium-clad, transportable houses. Roxby’s development coincided with a downturn in SA’s rural economy; many early residents had thrown in the towel on their struggling properties but were lured to Roxby because they still wanted to live in the bush.

Meanwhile, just 30 km away, a very different story was being played out in the wild corrugated-iron shanties, caravans and dugouts strewn about the opal-mining town of Andamooka. Next to sterile Roxby, Andamooka just oozes character. Long-term residents talk about its rough-as-guts history of secret mines, shootings and bikie dens; they recall illegal card games at the Tuckerbox restaurant with enough money on the table to buy a house in Adelaide. By the time Olympic Dam was being established, Andamooka’s 1960s–’70s heyday – when it had several thousand residents and opal in abundance – had petered out, and there were just a few stragglers hanging on to the town by their dirt-encrusted fingernails. Olympic Dam became Andamooka’s saviour.

“Roxby gave Andamooka a second lease of life,” says Dave Kovac, an ex-miner who grew up in Andamooka and is now a full-time artist living in Roxby. With Roxby currently bursting at the seams – there are long queues for every kind of accommodation – Andamooka has helped fill the housing void. “Housing prices have gone up $100,000 in a year,” Dave says, before pointing out that many of those with long-term Andamooka associations don’t think all the changes are good, particularly as the crusty character of the town is eroded by its newer residents. “People are putting in transportables and knocking down old sheds and stuff. The ‘slap-together, she’ll be right, make do with what you got’ – that’s all going.”

Andamooka’s oldest resident, 91-year-old Ted Jones, agrees. “We’re becoming a suburb of Roxby Downs – we want it to stay the same as it was,” he says. “It was pretty crude when I first came here – people living in dugouts along the creek, and tin sheds. There were no police, no liquor licences,” he says with a chuckle, “and several people got shot.”

Ted’s brother invited him to visit Andamooka in 1965. “He took us down a hole and we struck opal straight away and I was hooked. I brought seven picks, six shovels, and bought a case of gelignite and a carbide lamp. There were no ladders [to get out of the mines] – you’d have to climb on a bucket of dirt, grab the rope and swing your leg up to about shoulder high to get a foothold.”

Peter Taubers, the part-time postie who’s been here since 1977, has noticed a change in the type of people moving into Andamooka. “The people that work out at Olympic Dam tend to mix with themselves… and they’re different sort of people,” he says. “All the new people want everything on hand – all the mod cons. The opal miners weren’t like that. If something broke we used to just fix it. It’s like a wild frontier town here – there’s no council or anything. But now it’s ‘we need this, we need that’.”

Octogenarian Dick Clark, who’s lived in Andamooka since 1946, sees a major positive though – the return of many who’d grown up in Andamooka and had left because there was no future here. “It’s brought all these young people back. [Before Roxby] there was no reason for them to come back.” As an example, he gestures across the dusty road to where his own prodigal son now lives – he’s an explosives expert at Olympic Dam.

Uranium power – solving waste problems in the outback

Uranium. Nuclear Power. The past couple of years have seen these words thrust back into the headlines as everyone from the Prime Minister down considers whether nuclear power really could be a panacea against climate change. Although Australia has only three uranium mines, currently producing about a quarter of the world’s uranium, we have a third of the world’s known, economically viable resources, including Olympic Dam, the world’s largest single deposit.

Uranium is actually a fairly common element worldwide – as common as tin – with vast quantities in the Earth’s crust. It’s even found in seawater. But it’s generally in such low concentrations that it’s not economically feasible to extract it.

Olympic Dam, which was taken over by BHP Billiton in 2005, doesn’t have very high concentrations – about 600 g per tonne of ore – but it has a huge, consistent deposit in one area, making it viable. “The grades aren’t high by mining standards,” says mine spokesman Richard Yeeles. “It’s not high-grade ore, but there’s a lot of it.” It currently produces about 4500 tonnes of uranium a year, bringing in about 25 per cent of the mine’s $700 million annual profits. The remaining 5 per cent comes from silver and gold.

Outspoken critic of Olympic Dam, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s David Noonan, says that as uranium makes up less than 1 per cent of BHP Billiton’s worldwide profits the company should focus on the other metals, and not sell the uranium with its implications for radioactive waste. “Why is there so much discussion of uranium as if it’s a bonanza? Its export value is less than our cheese exports,” he says. “It’s about one-third of 1 per cent of our total exports in dollar terms.”

“Olympic Dam wouldn’t be viable unless it could sell the uranium as well,” counters Richard. “There are very significant costs in separating the copper from the other products and we have to be able to sell those products to offset those costs.”

Related: Gallery: Roxby Downs

Over the next five years, if all goes according to plan, the mine will prepare for its $5 billion expansion, and the conversion from an underground mine, with 260 km of tunnels and its own railway system, to a massive open pit that’ll begin bringing out paydirt in 2013. Instead of producing about 200,000 tonnes of copper a year, it’ll produce 500,000 tonnes. Uranium production is expected to more than triple.

It’ll involve moving a lot of dirt – a million tonnes of overburden each day for four years just to get at the ore body, 350 m down. That much dirt in this flat landscape will create a mountain with the potential to change weather patterns. And at the end of the mine’s life – currently predicted to be 50–70 years – the pit won’t be filled in.

The pit’s creation will involve massive infrastructure readjustments. The airstrip will have to move. A camp for a construction workforce of about 8000 people will be built on the road to Andamooka. And Roxby itself will need to expand quickly to take on the extra 1000 or so long-term miners and their families. This has major infrastructure implications for the non-elected town council, which last year alone lost $1.4 million, half covered by BHP Billiton and half by the SA Government.

Perhaps the biggest public issue associated with the expansion is the mine’s greatly increased need for water – an estimated extra 100 million litres each day. According to David, Olympic Dam’s current use of 30–35 million litres a day from bore fields that tap into the Great Artesian Basin has already had major impacts on some of the area’s mound springs, significantly reducing flows or causing their extinction.

Richard emphasises that none of the major springs have been affected and that the company believes its consumption of Great Artesian Basin water is sustainable. To make up the huge extra requirement, BHP Billiton is proposing to build a desalination plant near Whyalla, which would pipe water 320 km to Olympic Dam. “The SA Government has been looking at supply of water to towns such as Whyalla, Port Pirie and Port Augusta, which are currently supplied with water taken from the Murray,” he says. “There may be a win-win here – a supply for Olympic Dam and for the region, allowing more river flow down the Murray.”

Aside from the aquaculture and fishing industries’ fears about the effect such a plant could have on water quality in Spencer Gulf, environmentalists have expressed concerns over the amount of power the desalination plant – and the whole expansion – will use. “At the moment we take about 120 MW, which is 10 per cent of the State’s baseload,” Richard says. “We estimate we’ll need about another 400 MW.”

“The amount of electricity they want to use would equal all the residential houses in Adelaide,” David says emphatically. “It could undo all the work of all the greenhouse-gas emissions changes in SA.”

In the meantime, the mine deals with day-to-day environmental issues, such as trying to keep birds off the 110 ha of evaporation ponds. Just a few minutes contact with the sulfuric acid on the ponds is enough to kill avian visitors. The mine uses “bird-frite” cartridges, gas guns and spotlights to discourage the birds, but still they land. “It looks like a normal pond to a bird,” Richard says, acknowledging that numbers dying will probably increase with the current filling of Lake Eyre and the attraction of birds to the area.

Attracting more workers to Olympic Dam’s bright lights is also of long-term concern to BHP Billiton, whose recruitment expenses run into the millions. Job vacancies are always advertised on their website, and most of the mine’s contractors – who supply half the on-site workforce – could do with more employees too. There are already some 35 nationalities here, and when the expansion starts, expect the call to go out strongly overseas.

Roxby Downs: Crown town

Filipino Gordiano Bantiles was living in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, when he saw an Olympic Dam job advertised on the internet. He applied online and discovered that, although a qualified mechanical engineer, he could double his then earnings by becoming a mechanical technician in the smelter. BHP Billiton paid his translocation fees to Australia and set up a car and temporary accommodation for him, his wife Evelyn and two young kids, Eva and Bea. “People around here are very nice,” Gordiano says with a big smile. “Where we were living before, you could not leave your windows or doors open at night – someone would break in.” “It’s a good place to raise the kids,” Evelyn says, after two whole weeks of living in Roxby. “Most of the people who live here are young people.”

Many Roxbyites agree it’s a great place to bring up young children. But they question whether it’s such a good place for teenagers, and hundreds of families leave as their children approach high-school age. BHP Billiton tries to encourage the workers to stay, offering $12,000 a year per child to send the kids to boarding school elsewhere.

Those who do stay generally love it. They love the down-to-earth people, the outback, the fresh air and, not least, the money. “It’s been good to me,” says Bronte ‘Sticks’ Cooper, a cast specialist in the smelter, who’s lived in Roxby for 15 years. “I can’t grizzle about it. I own a Statesman, I own my home, I own a 22-foot (6.7 m) cabin cruiser.” The tinnie in his hand and the bent speedway car in his front yard (“me fiancée put it into the wall last year”) seem incongruous with Sticks’ established, homely garden (including lion statues), but that’s Roxby to a tee. “A lot of the single blokes don’t live here, so it keeps it as a family town. It’s pretty well behaved.”

Andrew Wurfel, a big bloke wearing a ‘Born to fish, forced to work’ T-shirt, says after living here 10 years he’s excited about the expansion. “I can’t wait – I’ve invested in here. I’ve got three properties here.” An underground drill-rig operator, he also owns five properties elsewhere. “It’s very good money – I don’t understand why young blokes don’t come up here and have a go.”

“Roxby’s made my life,” says Shane ‘Pog’ Toole, a tattoo-encrusted 35-year-old who’s been here nine years. “I came here with nothing – a Mitsubishi van, a swag and one week of the dole. Oh, and an ex-rental TV.”

Now his 1.5m wide-screen TV dominates the front room of the $380,000, four-bedroom house with ensuite, spa and pool that he owns and lives in with his partner Meaghan Kiely and their two kids, Indy and Phoenix. A classic 1970 Cadillac takes pride of place in the front yard – Pog saw it in a car magazine and liked the look of it. “I thought I wanted one, so I bought one. I’m about to buy another.” There’s also a Ducati motorbike in the front yard and a trail bike out the back with the two Great Danes, behind the shiny black Ford Explorer in the carport and before you get to the ute in the shed.

Pog laughs when he says people suspected him of having an amphetamine factory in his shed because he’s doing so well. A steel workshop supervisor, he says it’s just hard work and Roxby itself that made him. “I’d suggest everyone come to Roxby, as long as they’re not scared to work. If you’re willing to work, this place can make or break you. The hardest thing is staying out of the pubs. If you can stay out of the pubs you’re laughing.”

People like Meaghan and Pog, who love the town and its plans for expansion, don’t seem concerned by the credit-card abuse or financial mismanagement of some of their neighbours. They stay away from the serious allegations of adult bullying and victimisation in the workplace that have been made on the official Roxby website and in various reports. And they don’t really want to get involved in arguments about whether there should be an elected town council, rather than an appointed administrator who performs all the functions of council.

No, with his five-month-old baby Indy in his arms, the Aussie flag tattooed on his chest and his Cadillac by his side, Pog is just proud to be an ambassador for Roxby. “Everybody in the State knows about Roxby. We’re the pot of gold – we’re the El Dorado.”