Port Hedland: Issues of scale
It takes us most of the rest of the afternoon to drive the two-lane road from Roebourne to Port Hedland, at 15,000 or so people now the largest town in the Pilbara, and the most active port by tonnage in Australia. We pass through low scrubby land that transitions from Spinifex into saltbush, a landscape that Paul says stretches from here to Broome more than 600km to the north. At three-thirty in the afternoon we see lightning strikes ahead of us in the distance, and at four o'clock spot brushfire smoke rising black and thick to our right. Australia is ever the land of fire and water.
About 40km out of Port Hedland we can see the huge iron ore processing plant built during the late 1990s that was decommissioned after a dust explosion killed a worker and critically wounded several others. The Boodarie Iron 'hot briquetted iron plant' was designed to refine iron ore from 67 per cent purity to around 90 per cent; it theory it would increase BHP profits by bringing refining costs onshore, have provided 900 jobs, and allowed for faster shipping of larger quantities of ore. It almost worked, the 7km long conveyor belt bringing iron ore fines from the port to the plant, then carrying back the compacted briquettes, but it never proved really economical, and the accident put a cap on the experiment. “You used to be able to see the plant from 50km away, but they're taking it apart and the stacks are getting shorter,” says Paul. It's our first hint of the scale of operations here, that the company could built such a large plant in the first place, and then abandon it.
As we come into town, the stacks always on our horizon, we pass multiple trains of more than 300 cars waiting to unload their ore, or return to the mines. Even the road trains here are the largest we've seen, semis pulling three-and-a-half trailers with more than 90 wheels on the ground. A sign at the entrance to the town proclaims “BHP: Resourcing the Future.” Another sign states, somewhat to the contrary, “Please respect our natural icons.” We check into caravan park, modest bungalows shaded by trees with work clothes hanging out to dry on lines. Some port and mine workers live here, but most fly to homes elsewhere. It's cheaper to have a house in Bali and fly in for work on a weekly schedule than own a place in Australia. That kind of institutionalized non-residency mitigates against sense of community, local pride, and even simply caring for the environment on the residential level, leaving it up to the companies to act as stewards, which is not a role that comes easily to multinational corporations.