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End of boom? Not for Australia's iron ore miners

James Regan
Wednesday, 18 Dec 2013 | 4:00 PM ET

* Rio Tinto, BHP happy to dig as China buys more and more iron ore

* Still spending billions of dollars to expand

* The more they mine, the lower the cost

* Outback workers luxuriate in the spoils of robust market

VALLEY OF THE KINGS, Australia, Dec 19 (Reuters) - A fleet of charter flights ferry thousands of workers to and from this outback mine site. The resort-like housing offers gourmet food, cheap alcohol, swimming and well-equipped gymnasiums.

Australian iron ore mining seems immune from the spending crunch afflicting other commodities as a slowdown in Chinese growth cools a decade-long mining boom.

Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group are bulking up in Western Australia's iron-rich Pilbara desert as if the mining boom had never ended. A place where capital expenditure is still measured in the billions.

The miners are speeding up transformation of an area the size of Peru into a moonscape of rust-red pits linked via thousands of kilometres (miles) of rail lines to giant iron ore ports perched on the easternmost edge of the Indian Ocean.

"All this discussion about the end of the mining boom, we don't see it," said Fortescue Chief Executive Nev Power, before leading uniformed workers through dawn exercises at the company's King's mine. "We sell all we mine."

The chief executive, who left school as a teenager to work in a copper mine, laughs and groans along with the workers through repetitions of star jumps.

Alluding to the riches below the ground, Fortescue named this area after ancient Egypt's Valley of the Kings, where Tutankhamun's tomb was unearthed.

Ore lies close to the surface. It is simply shoveled up and carted to rail cars.

So many trains run to and from the mines that some producers now pay farmers flat annual fees to compensate for cows killed crossing tracks.

BARBECUE PITS

Miners are digging so fast, it's hard to keep up. Australia this week revised up its estimate for exports for the fiscal 2013-14 year to a record 650 million tonnes from 615 million just three months ago.

Powered by Chinese demand iron ore prices <.IO62-CNI=SI> have shot up from under $87 a tonne in September 2012 to around $134.

On the other hand, copper prices have slumped 12 percent this year, while gold, nickel and aluminium offer little or no profit margins.

While Australian miners in some of these sectors have lost their jobs, iron ore firms such as Fortescue are still prepared to lavish expenditure on mining hubs.

By dusk, many Fortescue staff change into shorts and t-shirts and head to barbecue pits or one of two cafeterias for dinner. Others will swim laps in the Olympic-size pool, workout in the gym or spend an evening in a private air-conditioned suite surfing the internet or watching cable TV.

In more populated areas of Australia, where coal is mined, workers have to find their own accommodation sometimes sleeping three to room.

Shifts in the Pilbara typically run 10 days on and six days off. Most workers fly home to Australian cities, while some opt for the Indonesian resort island of Bali, a short flight away.

PAST SINS

Warnings by Goldman Sachs, UBS and others iron ore would tumble as low as $70 a tonne in the third quarter proved unfounded. In fact, it ended the quarter 12 percent higher.

Driving up prices is China, which buys most of Australia's ore and where steel demand is growing by 8 percent a year.

Fortescue, despite dabbling in copper and gold and looking at shale oil, remains entirely dependent on iron ore.

"If the iron ore price goes, so goes most, if not all their profits," said Eagle Mining analyst Keith Goode.

BHP and Rio Tinto also risk alienating investors traditionally buying their stock for exposure to a diversified portfolio.

Even buffered by its oil and gas business, BHP would have seen its last full-year earnings before interest and tax drop to $10 billion from the $21.1 billion it reported without iron ore.

Rio Tinto, the world's biggest aluminium producer and a top five miner of copper and producer of a dozen other commodities, last year derived all but a fraction of earnings from iron ore.

Citigroup estimates miners have cut capital spending budgets by $19 billion, or 5 percent, after some disastrous investments in struggling metals like copper and aluminium.

"Iron ore is covering a multitude of sins committed by these companies," said Morningstar analyst Mark Taylor.

(Editing by Ed Davies)