In Western Australia’s remote Pilbara region, a mining town often referred to as the “engine room of the nation” has transformed into a cosmopolitan city.
- Karratha is heading into another construction boom with $65 billion worth of industrial projects planned
- More fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers will be required, but authorities are planning for more permanent residents long-term
- Hotel-like apartments that can later be used by residents are the preferred new FIFO accommodation, rather than old-style dongas
Fifty years ago, Karratha was a pastoral station with up to 70,000 sheep producing wool.
Fast forward to 2019 and it is a major regional city with 23,000 residents, where iron ore exports dominate the landscape and the employment market.
The changing face of Karratha means the frontier town looks more like a cultured metropolis with a plethora of shops, restaurants, an arts centre, cinema, library and a brand new hospital.
And the transformation continues.
A Hilton hotel in the planning stages for the city’s central business hub, known as The Quarter, will add 100 to 200 beds to a market that is mostly full.
The newly built international airport is expected to bring tourists and businesspeople from China as soon as it opens.
It’s anticipated a new bitumen road from Karratha to Karijini National Park will boost tourism and offer international visitors and grey nomads unique experiences within a day’s drive.
While the regional city still has a transient workforce of people staying for only a few years, employment, accommodation and leisure options are rapidly changing to create a more cohesive social fabric.
As more and more people decide to stay, sporting clubs and community groups in Karratha and the neighbouring towns of Dampier, Wickham and Roebourne are actively seeking out residents.
Community hubs have been built in Dampier and Wickham. New walking trails, skate parks and bicycle paths are popular in Karratha and its surrounding districts.
A foreshore development and a new marina are slated for Dampier and a new shopping centre will serve the suburbs at the western end of Karratha.
Long-term locals committed
Stuart Otto, who has lived in Karratha for 30 years, said it was a fantastic place to raise a family.
“I grew up my family of seven children on camping and fishing, tee-ball, netball, swimming,” Mr Otto said.
After going to Queensland for a short time in his early career, thinking the grass was greener there, Mr Otto said he and his family returned to the Pilbara.
“In Newman I fell in love with [my wife and] the Australian outback and coming back to Karratha, not only did I have the outback, but the coastal archipelago as well,” he said.
“There is just so much to offer here when it comes to what we have.
“You’ve still got camping and fishing, but now you’ve got modern facilities such as the Leisureplex, the Red Earth Arts Precinct, two modern high schools.”
Mr Otto, a contracting landscaper, is also president of the eight-year-old Karratha Community Garden, and said an inaugural festival was recently held there to encourage the community to volunteer.
Attended by more than 300 people, the event also highlighted the city’s multiculturalism with Thai, Indian and South African food on offer.
Mr Otto took part in community consultation for the city centre’s development and said the main street was now a vibrant, open area of festivals and markets.
Industry boom imminent
Karratha is expected to head into another construction boom as newly slated industrial developments move forward, spawning local infrastructure required to support a potential population of up to 50,000.
New projects worth $65 billion are on the cards for Karratha over the next five years, including Woodside’s Scarborough and Browse developments, as well as three big iron ore projects by BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group.
On the Burrup Peninsula there is the Perdaman urea plant — Wesfarmer’s joint venture — and a methanol plant by Methanex.
Gold mines include those by Artemis and Novo, and two salt projects are being developed.
Santos has found a significant gas resource at its Corvus field north of Karratha, which will probably be piped back to its Devil Creek Gas Plant near Karratha.
The company is also doing more drilling for oil and gas condensate at other sites this year.
Oil from these fields would probably be produced via a floating production and offloading storage facility, and gas could be piped to either the Karratha Gas Plant or to a new facility, which would need to be built at Port Hedland.
Babcock Helicopters will be building a new hangar at Karratha airport to service offshore islands such as the Varanus Island gas processing facility.
The new FIFO model and beyond
City of Karratha Mayor Peter Long said that even if half of the slated projects were approved, construction would require more camps and expanding leases on the existing fly-in fly-out (FIFO) worker camps.
But in negotiating the new FIFO arrangements, the City of Karratha is also insisting on getting something more permanent for the town to survive as a residential regional centre in the future.
Mr Long said while the construction workers would mostly be FIFOs, the flow-on effects should bring more permanent jobs in the long-term, once the projects were built and in production.
“Things have changed from 20 years ago. We want something more lasting out of this boom,” he said.
After the construction phase, the city’s permanent population is expected to increase.
As well as scope for permanent residents to work in industries such as potash, gas, iron ore and lithium, there are expected to be opportunities with subcontracting maintenance companies, and tourism.
The council’s preference has been for multistorey buildings to be constructed centrally so they can be used initially for FIFO workers, then later as residential apartments.
Mr Long said operations such as shutdowns should have better quality accommodation to offer temporary crews than camps.
“I think everybody understands that there are some major issues with mental health with FIFOs, having them cut off from the community, stuck away in a little room after they finish work is not good for anyone’s mental health,” he said.
“Having them get to know people in town, play footie or other sports, all that makes a huge difference so they can feel part of the community.”
Hotel-like apartments are preferred as the model for expansion, rather than the old-style groups of dongas.
“The Pelago building is effectively a quasi–FIFO camp with many apartments being used as accommodation for FIFO operational workforces,” Mr Long said.
“Helicopter pilots and a whole range of people come and go out of that building. We think it’s fantastic [to have FIFO people accommodated at Pelago].”
Local businesses all receive the flow-on benefits of a centrally located big-spending workforce under the new FIFO model.
The city council has updated its policies and now requires FIFO camps to have a limited 10-year life according to the needs of construction, followed quickly by demolition.
Power, water and 200 new blocks of land are ready to go at Karratha’s Madigan district in a move to get more permanent residents once construction ends.
Landcorp has 2,000 blocks in total available for a development at Mulataga in the city’s east.
The shift from FIFOs to a more permanent workforce
Many local businesses are already moving away from FIFO employment.
One of them is Air Services Australia (ASA), based at Karratha airport, which has started a new residential recruitment drive to replace FIFO jobs for its fire service.
“Local staffing is what we’re about,” said Karratha operations manager Ross Eiffler. The aim is to give the service greater contingency in emergencies.
David Grose, the latest Fire and Rescue recruit, said he enjoyed the high-fitness work culture, with employees required to spend at least 30 minutes a day maintaining their fitness in the on-site gym.
Getting into the service is extremely difficult and many applicants go through the recruitment process multiple times before being offered a role.
“First up you’ve got to pass an online aptitude test, your written application, then you need to pass a physical, which is where most people will fail,” Mr Grose said.
“If you get through that, you come to the assessment centre, do an interview with a panel, then you’ve got to do another online test — a psychological test where group interaction is assessed.”
Mr Grose said he applied three times before being successful.
Having grown up in Karratha, Mr Gross said coming back to his home town in this role was a dream come true.
Topics: industry, work, mining-industry, business-economics-and-finance, oil-and-gas, iron-ore, gold, karratha-6714, mulataga-6714, burrup-6714, tenindewa-6632, mullewa-6630, mardie-6714, baynton-6714, dampier-6713, wickham-6720, port-hedland-6721