Apart from some distant geography lessons on extractive industries, I can’t remember ever wondering what iron ore looked like or how it leaves the ground to become iron or steel. But, after a recent trip up to Lunsar, I now know, not only what it looks like, but have a better idea of the process involved in extracting it from the ground and shipping it to the industries of the world.
We were visiting London Mining (LM), a British Company that has invested heavily in the Marampa Mine near Lunsar, about three hours drive out of Freetown. Iron ore was first discovered in Sierra Leone in 1926. The Sierra Leone Development Company (DELCO) began extraction and shipping in 1933. Operations continued until the late 70s when the plant was closed. There was another short burst of activity in the 80s but little has been shipped since. During the civil war the buildings and facilities fell into disrepair. In 2005 London Mining started feasibility work and construction began in 2010. In 2011 production was restarted.
For the moment they are working through the tailings left by previous operations, as modern extracting methods, using large magnets, are able to extract far more ore than before. The ore is particularly pure and sought by steel mills around the world as they typically mix ore from different sources to make the blend of steel they require. LM has had to build its own power generating station to provide electricity to the site.
Apart from the expats who bring mining and managerial expertise, many employees are from the local town of Lunsar. The company is working with the community not only providing employment but also building the capacity of the workforce by training drivers and operators. They also fund community development and scholarships for local children. They have to manage expectations. as many residents remember the facilities provided by DELCO, albeit over 40 years of operation and not the few that LM have so far been here. Not only do they provide local jobs which improves the local economy, LM exports contribute a significant sum to GDP.
The environmental impact of the mine is largely in terms of landscaping and rearrangement of rocks and soils. No chemicals are needed to refine the ore unlike gold mining or other ore extraction. The current ore extraction is simply by digging a hole, which will later be filled with tailings. Ultimately the site will be re-landscaped and returned to agriculture.
Further plant is under construction to provide extraction equipment for the next phase of mining which will involve blasting of ore rich rock, which will then be crushed before extraction of ore. A large number of containers were being unloaded with all necessary equipment and large cranes and earth moving machines.
Once extracted the deep grey, shiny ore is piled high in conical heaps before transportation. This is partly to ensure some stockpiling, but importantly it allows moisture to drain from the ore. This is crucial because the moisture level must be below 11% or the ship’s captains will not permit loading. LM actively monitors and controls cargo moisture content to ensure the safety of the export vessel to prevent potential sinking of the ship if the cargo was to liquefy and become unstable: a tragedy that has occurred with nickel ore cargoes is in the past. This becomes a problem during the rainy season when it is difficult to dry anything, but in particular loading the ship will most likely be suspended if it is actually raining – which is quite often during July-September.[see this link for climate chart] This means that more stockpiling is likely during these months, but capacity to move the ore is limited, so they must maintain momentum as far as possible. A ship standing idle in port costs tens of thousands of dollars per day, so time is definitely of the essence.
Formerly the mine had its own railway to transport ore to the port at Pepel, but another mining license was awarded to Africa Minerals to extract from the Tonkolili region and the railway line went with this contract. London Mining therefore had to build their own road to a new port and are currently trucking all their ore along this road, about thirty miles. This alone is a huge investment and one that needs continual upkeep particularly in the rainy season to keep those trucks rolling.
We drove this route to see a barge being loaded and then followed the next stage by boat. The trip along the river, a tributary of the River Rokel, was a tranquil contrast to the large scale activity at the mine. On both sides were mangrove swamps and intermittently vivid green of fresh shoots in rice paddies. A particular local strain of rice, happy to grow in brackish water. It was the rice-growing skills of the local population that made them a particularly valued ‘commodity’ during the 18th and 19th centuries in the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Rice plantation owners in South Carolina were very keen to buy slaves with rice growing expertise and resistance to malaria, which at that time was a big problem in USA. The slaves were transported from this region via a fort on Bunce Island which we passed after joining the Rokel river and heading for Pepel. [see this blog for more on this]
At Pepel, a recently built railway line (replacing the old one) brings Africa Minerals ore from up country to the dockside for loading on to ships. This is a much larger scale of operation than LM. We passed the loading pier and out across the estuary towards Freetown. Just beyond Pepel I spotted the first boat I have seen in Sierra Leone using wind power!
Approaching the southern shore, between two huge rain storms, we spotted two barges bringing Marampa ore to the trans-shipment point. A little further and we paused beside another barge being unloaded on the the BK Alice, ready for onward shipment to China.
Our slight pause to watch the loading, allowed the rain ahead of us to move away and we reached the boat dock having avoided the downpour we had expected. An enjoyable day out of Freetown and we learned a lot about the iron ore industry.