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The Greensnake mine is a surprisingly beautiful open pit of earthy reds, browns, whites and, beneath the mud, black manganese ore. At the bottom of the deep cut, drills and blasters are digging further downwards to get to the resource, a high-grade, low-impurity mineral used in stainless-steel production. Greensnake is the largest of six manganese pits at mining site Woodie Woodie in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

It’s from here the nation’s life-blood is drawn. Starting with a trickle of excavations during the 19th century and continuing into the 1960s boom, today a flash flood is heading downstream. Sales from Western Australia’s minerals and petroleum industry broke through the au$100bn mark last year, representing 46 per cent of export earnings for the entire country.

Over 100,000 people work in the state’s mining industry, tapping everything from gold to salt to oil to the largest export: iron ore, (the output of which is set to double to 400 million tonnes each year in the next five years). An additional 30,000 workers are needed imminently to match the resource sector’s phenomenal growth. To put this in context, Western Australia’s entire working population is just 1.2 million.

With most mines located in remote and often uninhabited parts of the Pilbara, many miners commute to work by flying directly in and out of mine sites. It’s 05.30 on a Tuesday and fly-in-fly-out workers (FIFOs) are everywhere at Perth Airport’s domestic Terminal 3; they’re parking cars in their hundreds, pressing the buttons on coffee machines, reading Boom magazine and the Gold & Minerals Gazette, queueing up on the Tarmac to board. They’re already dressed in orange or yellow fluorescent work vests and steel-capped boots.

A conveyor belt of planes scoops them up to mine sites such as Leonora, Cloudbreak and Plutonic every 15 minutes over the next two hours, a schedule repeated on most weekdays. “The demand for that short window in the morning is so extreme that, quite frankly, it’s almost like peak hour on the roads in a city,” says Perth Airport ceo Brad Geatches.

The morning congestion and the rush of in-bound fifos in the afternoons are problematic, not to mention finding apron space for the 100 aircraft that need overnight parking. The international terminal and charter airline hangars have to take some of the overflow. The new au$120m domestic terminal, which opens next year, should ease pressure on carriers such as Skywest and Alliance that serve mine sites alongside regular traffic. Both airlines are doubling their fleets on fifo-routes and are opening up new ones from the east coast to bypass the clogged-up Perth Airport. Brisbane is hoping to take a sizeable chunk of FIFO traffic with its faster-connections to Sydney and Melbourne. “We fly to the schedule of the client, not the market. It’s about their logistics, not ours. They trust us to fly their workers to and from work every day,” says Mark Shelton, ceo of Skywest, which currently flies fifos for clients such as Rio Tinto and bhp Billiton.

Around the corner from t3, longtime charter airlines Skippers, Cobham, Maroomba and Network, a carrier bought by Qantas 12 months ago, have just seen their last FIFOs board for the morning. “We’ve out-grown this facility to a great extent. This terminal is standing room only at six in the morning. It’s just crazy,” says Skippers’ operations manager Roy Frost, leaning back on a chair. “It’s a logistical nightmare.”

Over at Network, the lounge is packed with fifos who work for Woodie Woodie’s operator Consolidated Minerals, waiting to fly the 1,500km northeast. A Pilbara summer storm has delayed the Fokker 100 from take-off at Perth because the airstrip at the mine is covered in mud. The rains have also hydrated the dusty Pilbara landscape, now speckled with greenery. Perched at the top of Greensnake, Simon Coyle, Woodie Woodie’s mine superintendent calmly looks out over the spectacular clouds rapidly moving closer. “There is nothing like a storm in the Pilbara,” he says as lighting strikes within 15km of the pit. The red alert is raised and everyone returns to camp to wait out the storm.

FIFOs are housed in so-called dongas. They are cyclone-certified (but rattle like tin-cans in thunderstorms nevertheless) and besides beds, they are kitted out with tvs, internet, fridges and shared laundry-rooms. Couples at Woodie Woodie (there are several) live together in larger dongas. Lisa Pearce, a 26-year-old trainee driller with iridescent blue eyes who wears an Australian Akubra fur-felt hat over her thick, blonde, plaited hair, sums up her life as a fifo whilst a drizzle of rain cools the hot air. “I love the flying. When I get here, I’m already at work, which makes it easier – you get into a routine.”

Married just five months ago to a fellow FIFO she met at Cosmos nickel mine, she admits they find it tricky staying in touch – he does night shifts at the mine Sinclair, she works days at Woodie Woodie. “It’s pretty hard when you’re married but I’m definitely not a city girl. I’ve grown up in the country my whole life.” Pearce is the antithesis of the Australian miner as a tough bloke with tattoos and bulging muscles (though there are plenty of those at Woodie Woodie too). Like many of her colleagues, she simply loves being in the bush, among the elements and the red soil, surrounded by solitude.

“The isolation actually becomes quite nice. You come back from the city and you just relax and enjoy it all – things get a lot simpler here,” says Alaina Rushton, an administration supervisor who has worked at Woodie Woodie for four years. She’s a mining-child, having grown up in townships as her dad worked his way across the Pilbara. “When I was really little it was very hard because he was never around and we didn’t see him very much. He doesn’t remember my brother as a baby at all,” she says. Rushton, who’s engaged to Simon Coyle whom she met on-site, sees more of her father nowadays – he also works here.

Consolidated Minerals does a good job of employing women. Less can be said of the industry overall (just 18 per cent of the resource sector workforce is female compared to the national average 46 per cent). And though it is the largest employer of Aboriginal Australians, the figure hovers around just 5 per cent.

Woodie Woodie miners pull 12-hour shifts on day-and-night rotations. The majority work two weeks straight, then get one week off. Keeping the pits going 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, they mine 200,000 tonnes of manganese every month, loading it up on road-trains that truck it north to Port Hedland where it’s shipped off to China, India, Taiwan and Korea.

FIFOs are handsomely rewarded for the taxing work. Besides the facilities on-site – at Woodie Woodie there’s a swimming pool, a gym staffed with a dedicated (and lovingly upbeat) exercise physiologist, basketball court and a mess hall that serves up unlimited amounts of delicious and healthy food – workers often earn double the national average. A geologist can make as much as au$125,000 a year, a general manager twice that. “We do it for the money. You try to set yourself up and get a mortgage”, says crane-operator Keith Evans. He owns a house in Perth with his girlfriend, a doctor who works in Alice Springs. They see each other on Evans’s week off. “The lifestyle is reasonable here – it’s a smaller mine so they look after you.”

In the evenings at Woodie Woodie, those who don’t go straight to the gym or dinner, gather around the tables at the camp pub. With burgers on the barbeque sizzling in the background, it’s here Woodie Woodie workers wind down after a day’s work, having a drink and a laugh. There’s genuine camaraderie all round. Taking a sip of beer, 23-year-old geologist Nigel Broomham is enjoying his second roster at Woodie Woodie. “I worked for a year in an office and it sucked. Being a geologist you want to be out there touching stuff,” he says. Spending his week off surfing Perth’s beaches, Broomham thinks being a fifo is ideal.

But there are plenty of unresolved issues with Western Australia’s resource-hungry economy, which impacts immensely on the local social fabric. It contributes to a brain-drain in non-resource related sectors – it almost doesn’t make sense to go to university any longer if you can make a fortune straight out of high-school working for a mining company. The roster-arrangement puts enormous strain on relationships and families with many FIFOs working up to eight months of the year away from home. The resulting mental health problems and substance abuse among the FIFO workforce have only just started to raise significant discussion at state level.

In addition, community development outside Perth has largely been stymied in response to the mining companies’ lack of investment in long-term housing. The government has finally got around to addressing this. Towns such as Karratha on the northeast coast will be redeveloped through the government programme Royalties for Regions, which funnels resource revenue back into communities in areas such as the Pilbara.

Wearing a white cotton shirt and with a beeping iPhone in front of him, the affable ceo of the Pilbara Development Commission Stephen Webster muses about Karratha’s future. “We’re setting up a whole masterplan to redevelop the entire city centre. It’s all about making this a great place to live. The flow-on from that is fly-in-fly-out becomes less of an impact,” he says.

Ironically, it’s FIFOs who make up most of the town’s 11,000 population and are largely building Karratha’s swimming pool, leisure centre, new schools and the town’s first high-rise, the luxury 114-apartment development Pelago West. To realise the grand idea of attracting 50,000 people or more by 2035, Karratha is getting a much-needed cultural injection and, very importantly, more housing. Property prices have galloped across the state in tandem with the mining boom. You might be able to get a four-bedroom house on Sydney’s waterfront for the price of a bog-standard two-bed on the northeast coast. Weekly rentals in Karratha range from au$1,400 to au$3,000. Webster explains how the new Karratha “will encourage young people to settle here, raise their families. And gradually our demographic spread will become a little bit more normal.”

Karratha has its job cut out for itself. With three new ports linked to mining operations, including Cape Preston, an au$5.3bn harbour that will export iron ore directly to China for SinoIron, Chevron’s au$23bn Wheatstone Development and the au$43bn Gorgon liquefied natural gas project in the pipeline, it’s unlikely the reliance on fifo-workers will abate any time soon.

It’s not just the social issues and a balancing of the lopsided economy that need to be addressed if mining in Western Australia should continue for another century. Though most operators have stringent environmental protection-rules in place, the impact on the land is significant. Repeats of mining companies closing down, leaving mines with gaping craters, which slowly fill with toxic water that contaminate the soil and delicate biospheres, are fears that cannot be ignored by any parties pushing ahead in the mining industry.

The future for Australia’s mining industry is undoubtedly bright. But nothing would come of the billions of dollars earmarked for investment in mining projects in Western Australia, nor would Australians such as Gina Rinehart who inherited her father’s mining operations, be on a straight course to becoming the world’s richest woman without the miners on the ground getting the job done. It’s the hard-working, unpretentious, bush-loving salt of the earth people such as Woodie Woodie’s FIFOs who’ll be making sure that the boom doesn’t go bust.

×The Foreign Desk

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