Heavy Mineral Sand Mining in Eastern Australia
In a previous blog I have commented on mechanisms for the concentration of heavy minerals in sand deposits along the coast of eastern Australia. For just over 100 years commencing around 1870 when gold was discovered in black sand at Shaws Beach near Ballina, until the late 1980s, the extraction of heavy minerals was an important and at times highly controversial industry from the Hawkesbury River to Fraser Island (K’Gari). Here I want to add a personal perspective on that history noting that it is a topic that requires a much more comprehensive analysis of conflicting parties to sand mining in this region, its impacts on coastal ecosystems and landform integrity and stability, and more broadly issues of the social license of miners to operate.
In 1981 Ian Morley, a mining engineer, published a book on “Black Sands” a history of the mineral sand industry in eastern Australia (U of Q Press, St Lucia). This is a go to reference for anyone interested in the background to the mining of rutile and zircon. He documents the growth of the industry from its very humble beginnings to the use of more sophisticated mining methods including techniques of land rehabilitation. It is a story of people with different values leading to heated conflicts and legal battles. Morley highlights the role these deposits played in meeting the demand for these products, particularly from the USA in the post-war years, and the economic benefits that flowed into our economy. He also captures to a degree the views and actions of those who opposed mining leading eventually to the establishment of national parks and nature reserves in NSW and Queensland. A summary of industry history and impacts by Will Kemp in 2011 can be found online (https://willkemp.net.au/enviroscience/land-degradation-and-rehabilitation).
Around the time Morley was writing his book, Gwen Piper had prepared a devastating indictment of the sand mining industry in “My One Fourteenth Millionth Share” (1980,Temnor Publications, West Ryde). She describes in some detail various events and impacts of mining along this coast. I was involved in some of those events. Looking back 40 plus years later on my engagements with miners, communities, conservationists, government officials and other scientists, it is not readily apparent what the industry did to our coast.
Three phases of sand mining for heavy mineral sand mining can be identified, each with its landscape impacts. The first involved unregulated scrapping of sand from the active beach using rather crude methods to separate concentrates initially gold and later the big four: rutile, zircon, ilmenite and monazite. In places this required extracting from the base of foredunes after storm events left traces of black sand on the beachface. It was soon realised that storms did not indefinitely concentrate these minerals from offshore sources. This lead to the second stage to mining foredunes and into hind dunes removing a small fraction of the sand mass and replacing the bulk (tailings) onto flatter surfaces. Fast growing exotic plants like bitou bush were introduced to stabilise the land surface. At this time the scale expanded including use of massive flotation plants. Following considerable criticism and ecological investigations, the larger companies entered the third phase in the late 1960s with programs of native plant rehabilitation into remoulded landforms including areas of high dune at Myall Lakes and Stradbroke Island.
For me mining has been a mixed blessing. Research benefited from access to pits and drill records and from an understanding of rehabilitation methods. But the way in which landforms were destroyed and ecosystems changed were irreversible and lines had to be drawn to prevent the industry from continuing unabated. Local communities and scientific groups continued to lobby successive NSW and Queensland Governments to create no-go areas. For instance Myall Lakes and Cooloola became national parks. Fraser Island eventually received World Heritage protection. Along the way there were inquiries and court cases which highlighted strongly held views (see blog 137, May 2019, on conservationist John Sinclair and Fraser Island inquiry 1974-5).
Initially most local councils supported mining and the jobs that flowed from it. This led to long-lasting community divisions as there were others who cherished the natural systems. A notable exception was Wyong Council. It sought to use its tree preservation powers to stop mining in the red gum forest on the Wyrrabalong Peninsula. Remarkably this case proceeded through the courts ending up at the Privy Council in London in 1974, the last case ever before this court from Australia; it held that the trees remain. However, during the 1970s into the 80s both state governments promoted mining. In 1974 Queensland challenged unsuccessfully in the High Court the powers of the Commonwealth to intervene on Fraser Island. NSW switched its position in 1992 eventually placing a mining ban in 1997 Coastal Policy. I had the satisfaction of appearing at some of these inquiries to initially to explain geomorphic history and later to advise NSW Government on the 1997 Coastal Policy and its noxious weed committee.
As far as the 1960s plant ecologists were expressing alarm at post mining impacts. State soil conservation services were encouraging miners use exotic plants to quickly cover restored land to prevent active dune blowouts from occurring. I once met a chap who was paid 20c per plant to place bitou bush over such areas. The consequence was infestation along the NSW coast. It was a battle to have this species declared by the NSW noxious weed committee. They were reluctant because it had no agricultural impact and was only of environmental concern! I appeared before the committee with a representative on NSW National Parks and we convinced them. It was later declared one of 10 weeds of national significance (WONS). I was later asked to join the WONS national committee. It was a delight to work with this dedicated group. Kemp discusses other aspects of rehabilitation post sand mining his 2011 article.
In my July blog on sand mining I mentioned how the BMR after WW2 explored for monazite; this heavy mineral was identified as a source of thorium for use in atomic energy. This never happened. Monazite was discarded with the tailings. At Byron Bay these tailings covered parts of the town that were later settled. In the 1980s measures of radioactivity led to temporary removal of buildings including a school so that these sands could be “cleaned”, a sad impact of mining.
Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2023. For correspondence about this blog post please email firstname.lastname@example.org