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Titanium treasure trove

A TITANIUM mine, estimated by its owner to contain deposits worth up to US$135 billion, is set to begin production in Koh Kong province next year. The 20,400-hectare mine, set 10 to 40 kilometres from Chi Pat village, would become the biggest in Cambodia to date, a government official said yesterday.

Chief executive officer of mining firm United Khmer Group, Chea Chet, said that the project had received approval from both the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy and the Cambodian Development Council.

“We are going to process titanium slag and shift it to Japan, the United States, China – any market we can sell it to” he said. Titanium slag is a semi-processed form of the element. It is treated further to produce titanium – used in a wide range of products ranging from toothpaste, to lasers and aircraft engines.

Chea Chet said that in every 100 million tonnes of ore, 45 percent was slag. This could be sold at between $700 to $2,500 per tonne, depending on market fluctuations, he said.

At his upper estimate, the 120- million-tonne mine would be worth $135 billion.

Chea Chet said the 51 percent Cambodian-owned company would invest hundreds of millions of dollars during the next 50 to 100 years. About 20 percent of investment would come from China, 15 percent from the US and 15 percent from Japan, he said. Production was due to start in mid-2011.

Pech Siyon, director of the Koh Kong provincial Department of Industry, Mines and Energy, confirmed the mine would be largest in Cambodia, but that exploration had been delayed by rain and disputes over its environmental impact.

In July, Vann Sophana, in charge of the Forestry Administration’s Coastal Inspectorate, met villagers to discuss concerns that the mine overlapped a protected forest. He said yesterday that the issue had been discussed at a meeting of the CDC, which had issued recommendations about the mine to Prime Minister Hun Sen. He declined to comment further.

Industry commentators have had a mixed reaction to the scheme.

Cambodian Association of Mining and Exploration Companies President Richard Stranger said yesterday that the scheme “would be a significant financial benefit” to Cambodia.

But Robert Porter, general manager of investor relations and corporate affairs at Australian miner Iluka, said that companies such as BHP Billiton had abandoned titanium mines because of capital expenditure blowouts. He estimated that the price of slag was closer to $400 per tonne.

Sowanna Gauntlett, country director of NGO Wildlife Alliance, said her organisation had observed that exploration had not been sufficient to see if such large deposits existed.

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