Rio Tinto’s two Gladstone alumina refineries have pushed ahead with $75 million of planned maintenance shutdown work this year, overcoming COVID-19-restriction challenges by using largely locally based workforces and stringent screening and controls.
The 2020 shutdowns at Queensland Alumina Ltd (QAL) and Rio Tinto Yarwun refineries have meant there have been up to an extra 500 specialised contractors working at the sites in recent months.
Rio Tinto Yarwun general manager Mark Gilmore said “We have found ways to safely deliver our shuts during challenging times. This is good for our refineries, our local businesses and the community.”
The QAL and Yarwun shuts are providing significant economic benefits for the Gladstone region, including local spend with labour-hire firms, transport and vehicle-hire businesses, maintenance workshops and accommodation suppliers.
Yarwun’s June-to-October shut, at a cost of about $65 million, covers the three major areas of the plant – digestion, boilers and calciners. To limit production impacts, the Yarwun shuts are being done simultaneously.
“The complexity of the shut at Yarwun is an opportunity to re-think the way we do things and explore innovation in our systems,” Mark said.
To ensure the Yarwun refinery can maintain necessary social distancing with up to 350 extra people on site, the shut has been limited to day shifts.
“This means we have had a longer shut but with lower intensity,” Mark said.
QAL’s 2020 shutdown, which has a total project investment of $10.6 million, involves technical upgrades to the boiler management system (BMS) in one of 10 onsite boilers.
QAL general manager Pine Pienaar said “This upgrade will significantly improve the safety and stability of our boiler operation.”
“The BMS provides safe start-up, temperature control monitoring and shutdown of the boiler. This is our second boiler upgrade since 2019, with five more scheduled to be completed by 2023,” Pine said.
QAL’s boilers produce high-pressure steam that is integral to the alumina-refining process. The steam is used across the operation, mainly in the ‘digestion’ process of extracting alumina from bauxite.
To deliver the QAL shutdown, 140 local contractors have been working day and night shifts since August. The boiler is due to return to service on 24 October, with the total project investment standing at approximately $7.8 million on Gladstone regional suppliers.
The two refineries and Boyne Smelters Limited (BSL) introduced layered COVID-19 controls earlier this year to mitigate the risk to employees, contractors and the community. These controls include a mandatory questionnaire and body temperature screening for anyone entering the sites, along with antibody and full diagnostic screening if necessary.
Last year, Rio Tinto’s Gladstone operations spent $531 million with local businesses.
As part of its community focus, Rio Tinto Yarwun’s shut team and primary contractor, UGL, supported suicide-prevention charity Project We Care, as well as R U OK Day.
“For every safe (zero injury) day, we donated $200 to Project We Care, channeled through the Rotary Club. Having a community focus means a lot to our teams,” Mark said.
At QAL, shut contractors and full-time employees benefited from the launch of the site’s new Peer Support Program, which invites anyone on site to be trained volunteers who can support and guide other team members during difficult times.
“This program is a key step within QAL’s business-wide wellbeing strategy to ensure everyone goes home safely. This applies to the shut as much as any other activity onsite,” Pine said.
QAL and Yarwun are now planning their 2021 shuts. The 2020 shut has shown that both refineries have the capacity and expertise to undertake major shuts in challenging times.
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