By Melissa Pistilli - Exclusive to Silver Investing News Mining has played a large role in the history of Australia and continues to shape much of its economy and position in the world today. Many of the world's leading multinational mining companies operate in the nation, including Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO,LSE:RIO,ASX:RIO), Xstrata (LSE: XTA), BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP,ASX:BHP), and Newcrest (ASX: NCM). Recognized as one of the world's top resource producing and exporting nations, Australia is well-known for its vast wealth of metals and minerals that includes coal, uranium, copper and gold. Lesser known is the significant role silver mining has had in the country's history. The first resource mine ever developed in Australia was a silver-lead mine near Adelaide in South Australia in the 1840s. Two other early silver discoveries were the Broken Hill deposit in New South Wales and the Mt. Isa deposit in Queensland. The majority of Australia's silver resources are produced from highly mechanized lead- zinc, and copper underground mines. The key refinery for Australian-mined silver is the Port Pirie lead smelter and refinery in South Australia. The white metal is also extracted from gold and refined by gold refineries in Perth, Kalgoorlie and Melbourne. Silver production and “Big Australia” Australia ranks fourth amongst the world's top silver producing countries—behind Mexico, Peru and China—producing 59.9 million ounces in 2010, up from 52.6 million ounces in 2009. Nearly two-thirds of this production comes from the world's leading primary silver mine, the Cannington silver-lead mine in northwest Queensland. In 2010, silver production from the mine totaled 38.6 million ounces, making its operator BHP Billiton the global leader in silver production once again; a fitting position for a mining giant, commonly known in the resource world as “Big Australia,” whose origin is tied to one of the first great silver discoveries in the country.
In 1883, German immigrant Charles Rasp discovered the lead-zinc-silver deposit known as Broken Hill in New South Wales. The Broken Hill Propriety (BHP) Company was born in 1885. According to Geoscience Australia, within three years of its discovery the Broken Hill mine accounted for a third of total global silver production. BHP would later merge with another age-old mining giant, Billiton, to form BHP Billiton in 2001.Other Australian silver hotspots Other silver hotspots in Australia include the Mt. Isa deposit in Queensland and the McArthur River mine in the northeastern portion of the Northern Territory. Discovered in 1923 by prospector John Campbell Miles, the Mt. Isa deposit is still producing as are a number of other large mines in the region including Xstrata's George Fisher and BHP Billiton's Cannington. Other silver-rich deposits in the region include the Hilton, Century, and the yet to be mined Dugard River and Lady Loretta deposits. Minmetals Resources (HKG: 1208) operates the Century mine in Queensland, Australia's largest open pit zinc mine, which as of January 2010 held 19.3 million ounces of silver in reserves with an additional silver resource of 47.3 million ounces. Opened in 1995, the large McArthur River mine—operated by McArthur River Mining, a subsidiary of Xstrata—is another of the world's largest lead-zinc-silver mines. Other silver companies in Australia Alcyone Resources (ASX: AYN) is an emerging silver company whose key asset is the Texas Silver Project in Queensland. The project includes the Twin Hills Silver Mine and a group of advanced exploration properties. Between 2007 and 2009, the mine produced approximately 500,000 ounces of silver before being placed on Care & Maintenance. Alcyone has brought the mine back into production this year with a goal of bringing the annual rate of production to between 1.5 million ounces and 2 million ounces silver. Argent Minerals Limited's (ASX: ARD) Kempfield Silver Project in New South Wales is in the feasibility stage of development. Argent expects the Definitive Feasibility Study to be completed by December 2011. Breakaway Resources (ASX: BRW) is a partner with BHP Billiton in the Altia silver-lead-zinc joint venture located 100 kilometres from the mining giant's Cannington mine. Cobar Consolidated Resources (ASX: CCU) is working toward commencing production in late 2011 at the Wonawinta Silver Project in western New South Wales. According to the company, the property has the potential to be the largest pure silver project in Australia with 51 million ounces of indicated and inferred silver resources as well as 14 million ounces of probable silver reserves identified to-date. Kingsgate Consolidated Ltd., (ASX: KCN) an Australian gold miner, recently purchased the Bowdens project in North South Wales from Silver Standard (NASDAQ: SSRI,TSX: SSO) for US$82.24 million. The company expects to complete a feasibility study on the project in the second half of 2012. Malachite Resources NL's (ASX: MAR) flagship property, the Conrad polymetallic silver-rich base metal project, is located in the Mt. Isa region of northwest Queensland. Silver Mines Limited (ASX: SVL) is a silver explorer whose high-grade Webbs Silver Project in northern New South Wales has a inferred resource estimate of 1.23 million tonnes at 256g/t silver for 10.19 million ounces of silver.