Opal decision could devastate Winton Shire

By Michael R Williams

The State Government’s decision to place a moratorium on small mining claims could spell disaster for the Winton and Opalton community if not handled swiftly and properly.

Opal mining plays a significant part in the Winton and Opalton economy both directly through sales and indirectly through tourism.

And locals were anticipating a boom year in 2022 as borders opened and international buyers came into the town again – but this moratorium could make mining almost impossible for many constituents in the region.

The State Government have claimed that they plan to “a more efficient system for small-scale mining”, but the mining leases Winton and Opalton miners have been left with would be too expensive for many to continue to work – possibly for years.

Mining Leases are more than double the price upon application, $849 instead of the $408 Mining Claim; they require a $3000-dollar Native Title fee, as opposed to a $500 one; have additional fees such as a security rent fee of $64/ha, pay Council rates of $374 a year; Fire Levy of $112; and an Annual fee ERA of $712.

It comes at a time the industry was finding momentum.

Queensland Boulder Opal Association President James Evert said his association was first notified of a moratorium as a result of the Resources Industry Development Plan review, which had recommended the removal of Small Mining Claims on 24 November.

“The small mining claims – they want to replace them with something else, but they haven’t actually said what,” he said.

“They said it’s not viable for the Government to continue on using the system of Mining Claims in the State of Queensland.

“They used a number of excuses – we’re not viable, we don’t contribute to tourism, we don’t contribute to these remote communities.“

QBOA will be looking to challenge the moratorium in February next year, and according to their figures, the State Government’s claims are wrong.

The opal mining industry contributes over $7 million to the Winton Shire economy a year, not including the tourism dollar it draws.

Mining claims were set up in fossicking areas such as the Winton Shire, for small-scale miners in the opal fields and Gemfields, to help new people enter into the industry, with the hopes they would proceed to larger-scale operations that require a Mining Lease.

Mining Leases do not have size restrictions like a Mining Claim.

“For us to see to see them cut Small Mining Claims, it has a major economic effect across the board for small-scale mining,” Mr Evert said.

“It’s our job to try to convince the Government to keep them going.

“They may need to tweak them [Small-Mining Claims], but to actually just pull them off the table is just unacceptable.”

Mr Evert said State Government has not been clear with its reasoning behind the decision.

“At the moment, the State Government has just dropped this on the table without any real reason other than stating we’re not viable, we have minimal royalty, we’re too expensive to run,” he said.

“They didn’t actually pinpoint issues like the environment or anything like that.

“They’ve used this report as an excuse to have a close look at the Mining Claims and how they’re operated.”

But the decision could leave opal miners out of work for over two years – the moratorium will last a year, and even if the State Government were to keep Mining Claims after that period of time, it would take opal miners another six months to a year to have their claims granted.

“Because you’ve been out of action for a year and a half, it’ll take you [an opal miner] another six months to get going,” Mr Evert said.

“It’s got an immediate effect, and the longer it goes on for the worse the long-term effects will be.

“It’s really important that we sort this out sooner rather than later.”

Mr Evert said the decision was disappointing when opal mining was becoming a more popular occupation.

“In our industry, we have to create our destiny,” he said.

“We’ve never had a lot of help from Government, it’s an industry where we have to create the vehicles, the sales, the markets.

“What’s happened is, we’ve been doing a really great job, we’re moving forward – communities like Winton over the past five or six years, there are approximately 20-28 houses directly related to opal miners investing in the industry and community.”

Winton has become the major centre for opal mining in Queensland.

“Our industry is based on supply, when we have the greatest supply, we have the greatest demand,” Mr Evert said.

“So we need people out there mining.

“It’s Winton that’s continually lifting its image, and continually lifting its community.”

Winton Shire Council Mayor Gavin Baskett said the moratorium could cripple the opal industry and have long-term effects on not only the miners’ income but the Winton economy.

“The opal industry is an important economic driver in our community and needs the security of future claims,” he said.

“In the QRID Draft Plan, it says “a recent cost-benefit analysis found that the sector had only a marginal benefit on the Queensland economy and surrounding communities”, this is incorrect, there are many businesses in town that benefit from the Opal Industry.

“A lot of miners own houses in town and we have 4 opal retail shops as well, you can’t tell me this has only a “marginal benefit to the surrounding community”.

“We also have an opal trade show and opal festival through the year with an International Gems Awards Night which attracts lots of buyers and visitors.”

Councillor Baskett said opal is a value add industry.

“The government only gets minuscule royalties compared to coal and gas but the benefits are taking a piece of rock and turning it into jewellery that is worth thousands to tens of thousands of dollars,” he said.

“This is not to mention, the Outback Opal Hunters has become a worldwide phenomenon and has filmed at Opalton for the past 7 seasons, hopefully, this moratorium doesn’t have a negative impact on future filming”