Nov 23 2018Encouraging News About Mintabie

Nov 23 2018Encouraging News About Mintabie


Uncertainty surrounding the future of a South Australian opal mining town is impacting upon the international trade of the precious gemstone.  Mintabie in the state’s far north west is home to about 30 permanent residents and has been crucial to Australia’s opal trade for more than 40 years.  Australia supplies 90 per cent of the international opal market, but the future of mining in Mintabie is unknown.

The former state Labor government commissioned an independent review into the town in 2017.  The report found the town was being used to supply drugs and alcohol to people living on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands.

The report’s 14 recommendations, which included the option to close the town and hand control to APY lands, were adopted in full by the former South Australian government.

Following the report, the State Government also commissioned a review into the future of opal mining in the town.  A recent Department of Energy and Mining report said there was about $4 billion worth of unmined raw opal at the Mintabie Precious Stone Field, which could sustain activity on the field for the next 400 years.  Public submissions to the mining review closed this week, with a decision on mining at Mintabie expected in December, 2018.

Potential mine closure ‘a tragedy’

Chicago-based opal cutter and jewellery designer, Arek Varjabedian, has used Mintabie opal for years.  In his submission to the Government, he called for the field to stay open and said uncertainty over the town’s future had begun impacting the international industry.

“The prices have sky-rocketed in the US for stones from Mintabie,” Mr Varjabedian said.  “Demand now more than ever is high in the American market.”  He said the cost of rough opal had jumped by as much as 50 per cent, depending on colour, quantity, type and location.  The price increase had brought the price of Mintabie opal in line with Lightning Ridge black opal, the most expensive and highly regarded in the industry.  Mr Varjabedian’s jewellery has been sent to clients in Canada, Europe, and New Zealand, with Mintabie opal marketed specifically.  “It does carry weight in the market for its quality,” he said.

“Coober Pedy and Mintabie opal are some of the best known in the industry, so whenever we mention Mintabie, it’s a great selling point for us in the industry.”  He said the diversity and quality of the Mintabie opal made it unique in the international market.  “It’s a very attractive stone that has a variety of different types; there’s the black-base-coloured Mintabie opal and the matrix coloured material … both of which happen to be very beautiful and in high demand.”  He described Mintabie’s fight for survival as “a tragedy” and “personally devastating” to his business.  “I never expected to be in a situation like this; it’s something that we’ve been normally sourcing for years without any issues … you don’t think about it until it comes into the limelight,” he said.

“If we’re not going to see this again, how are we going to make it up and how are we going to find other sources?

“I’m worried as an artist and opal cutter that the future generation of children won’t have access to or see the beauty of Mintabie opal.”

Opal field report surprises locals

Locals have been unhappy with the State Government’s review process, with many claiming the review, which condemned the town, was biased and inaccurate.  In the month of December 2017 alone, the report stated there were “reports of an arson attack, which destroyed a house, a woman being imprisoned in her house and sexually assaulted, verbal threats towards store owners, three cars being set alight, a deliberately lit grass fire near the school, a break-and-enter at the school, numerous residential property break-ins, ‘hooning’ and drug dealing”.  Both the report and residents said these matters were brought to police attention.

Mintabie and its adjacent opal field fall within APY territory, but have been leased to the South Australian Government since the early 1980s.  All residents and business owners must hold a licence from the Government in order to live, mine, and operate their business in Mintabie.  Residents were notified in July that the current Liberal State Government would uphold the former Labor government’s decision to end the opal town’s lease.  Mintabie Miners and Progress Association chair, Robyn Lloyd-Groocock, said the Government’s new report into the opal field’s future made for interesting reading.  “It’s very interesting considering the pressure that’s being put on opal miners who live out here and have tried to live out here for the past 40 years and the assistance we’re not getting to remain here,” Ms Lloyd-Groocock said.

She said problems mining for opal at Mintabie had little to do with the terrain or location of the precious stones field.

“After September 11 [terrorist attacks] … the cost of diesel and the price of explosives and the licences that were put in place … made life more difficult for miners,” Ms Lloyd-Groocock said.  Despite the challenges, she said there was no need for financial support from the Government.  “The industry is perfectly capable of keeping opal mining viable themselves. People just need to be given the opportunity to live where the opal mining is,” she said.

“The Department of Energy and Mining considers that it’s perfectly viable for people to leave their equipment out at Mintabie and live at Marla.  “Marla is 35 kilometres away on a pretty unfriendly road … carting diesel, tools up and back on that road each day to mine, and to potentially come in and find your hoses cut, tanks drained and batteries gone on your equipment is not the way people want to continue.”

Minister disputes industry impact

Minister for Energy and Mining, Dan van Holst Pellekaan, said he understood people’s interest in continuing to mine at Mintabie.  “We’re not trying to close down the opal field,” Mr van Holst Pellekaan said.