September, 22 2010
William L Fox

The Future Displacement

Early the next morning the photographers go off to take a tour of the new natural gas-fired power plant at Cape Preston that's almost completed, but not yet open, while Larry and I take a tour of the industrial infrastructure of the area. We meet our group at the Karratha visitor centre at 9.15, a dozen of us loading into on a small bus with our helmets and safety glasses. Janine, our guide, explains that the Dampier salt fields are the largest of three in the Pilbara, 10,000 hectares through which water is pumped from the ocean into Pond Zero. From there the water is gravity-fed through a series of five or so other ponds in a big circle over a period of 12-13 months before reaching the final crystallisation pond and harvested. The size of the salt works is large enough that, from the ground, Pond Zero is indistinguishable from the ocean, a necessary scale of economy: it takes 62 tonnes of seawater to yield a tonne of salt. Salt ponds are usually found in deserts because they need sun and wind to do the evaporative work. Dampier exports 4.2 million tonnes of salt per year, mostly for industrial purposes in China, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

After traversing the salt ponds we head into the Rio Tinto iron ore facility, diving under the ‘spaghetti bowl' of train tracks and conveyor belts to gain access to a vantage point. More numbers tumble from Janine: 24 trains per day, 230 cars per train, 86 seconds to empty each car onto the conveyors moving about 22 kph. Thirteen mine sites feed ore into Dampier, Mount Tom Price among them. We stop at an overlook with the empty cars pushed slowly by us below. Every few seconds the lines are nudged, the jamming of the cars clanging like a giant dull bell. It's the most powerful industrial sound I've ever heard, the bass note of $40 million per day. A woman who drives trucks for Rio Tinto is on the tour with her parents, and she tells them that when a train derails, it costs the company $1 million per minute in repairs and lost revenue.

Huge sprinklers come on and off in a series of gleaming arcs to keep down the dust. If they didn't, the results would be more than just some radar scatter, but the choking of Dampier. The result is that the air smells like rust. Watching machines made of steel moving around their constituent material, the iron ore, strikes me as an almost self-devouring process, which fits entirely too well with the Martu depictions of cannibals living under parts of their country. Janine doesn't address the issue of desalinisation, but states that there's a plan for the empty ore ships returning from Japan to bring back recycled water. I scratch my head over the negative synergies. The more economic activity the mining produces, the more energy and water is consumed that requires more construction, hence more steel, in an upward spiral of consumption until one or more of the critical resources runs out--the iron ore, the water, or the coal fuelling the power plants.

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