Mining, Mining Workforces, And Their Impact On Small Town Economic Infrastructure

What happens to a town when a mining company moves into town? Studies like this one, commissioned by the City of Karratha in Western Australia for the State Government inquiry into mental illness is FIFO workers, provides a few clues.

Communities like Karratha in remote mining regions of the world are impacted greatly by mining operations. They experience either an influx of temporary residential workers into the town, who will only be living there for the life of the mining operations, or there is a constant ebb and flow of FIFO workers. Either way, these transient populations impact upon local communities in many ways, not all of them beneficial! Not the least of these impacts is the way they put pressure on services and infrastructure that are only designed to support a local residential population with anticipated modest or slow growth. 

One of the major impacts mining operations, and a mining workforce, have is on local economic infrastructure. This includes:
  • Roads
  • Airports
  • Utilities – power, water, waste, waste water
  • Telecommunication services – telephone, Internet

Pressure On Roads And Rail Infrastructure

Mining invariably brings with it heavy equipment. During a mine site's construction phase there is an increase in heavy vehicles bringing in building materials and equipment. Much of this equipment is heavy, which puts additional weight loading on roads that may not have been built to take these types of weights. And may not be wide enough for them either!

During the lifetime of the mine itself there will be oversized equipment using the roads, along with additional vehicles transporting FIFO workers to and from shifts. All of these factors put pressure on local authorities to increase funding allocation for road maintenance. In many cases, this will be at the expense of other community services depending on how much the mining company itself has agreed to contribute to services like road maintenance and upgrades as part of its social licence to operate. Increased road traffic also brings with it more noise, more dust, more vibrations from the heavy vehicles using the roads, and increased chances of road accidents, all of which impact on local communities. 

Local Airports And Air Service Infrastructure

The other piece of infrastructure that comes in for a hammering when a mining company moves in is the local airport. This is particularly the case when the company employs a large FIFO workforce. Remote and rural airfields and the associated airport building infrastructure are often only designed to support a small local population. Therefore, the increased pressure from additional flights ferrying a FIFO workforce backwards and forwards may require upgrades to the airport facilities to handle the extra passenger flows, and possibly to the runways as well.

Another aspect of the additional pressure on airports that is not often considered is the increase in emergency use. Mining inevitably brings with it more accidents and incidents. Often in small rural communities, the local medical facilities are not adequate, nor are they designed, to cope with these increases or with major accidents. Patients invariably need to be airlifted out to medical facilities elsewhere. Once again, this places additional pressure on the airport and requires prioritised airspace. It also adds pressure on the local emergency services that provide emergency care and transport patients.

An environment spin off of increased air travel is that it also raises a town's carbon footprint!

Impact On Power, Water, And Sewerage Facilities

Mining camps for FIFO workers require amenities like water, power, and sewerage. These are expensive undertakings at the best of times, and made even more so when camps are in remote locations. Even building additional residential housing to accommodate workers who relocate to these towns requires the installation of additional amenities. This in turn places pressure on facilities that are often only designed to cope with the existing population and a modest population growth. Not the sudden jump in population numbers that may happen when a mining company moves in!

Telecommunication And Internet Services And The World Wide Wait

In today's world, where there are people there also needs to be Internet and telecommunication infrastructure. For FIFO workers availability and access to these services is vital and necessary for their health and well being. It allows them to stay in touch with family and friends whilst away. They are also vitally important for accessing support services like phone counselling and online support groups. However, some of the remoter mine sites and worker camps don't have coverage, or have patchy coverage at best which means workers may need to access these facilities in the local towns.

It also has to be said that quite often government funding for rural and regional areas is based on a residential 'per head' calculation and unfortunately, FIFO workers are not included in these 'head counts'. This leaves local authorities in areas where a significant number of the workforce is FIFO, with funding shortfalls. An additional albeit transient populace is using their existing services and infrastructure, yet for funding purposes these people 'don't count.'

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