‘Garimpeiro’ columnist Barry FitzGerald has covered the resources industry for 35 years.

Could it be that Rio Tinto is about to break cover on its Winu copper discovery in Western Australia’s remote Paterson province?

That’s the speculation in WA mining circles, with the chatter led by the band of juniors with exploration interests in the region which stand to benefit if Rio does confirm Winu as a major find.

Rio has remained shtum on Winu since reports that it was on to something special first surfaced in April last year. In fact, Rio has yet to confirm the discovery is called Winu.

That is despite satellite imagery showing extensive drilling over an area of more than 1km by 1km, the establishment of a 56-man exploration camp, and Rio drawing up airport and road plans for the project.

The gossip says it’s big

Last week, a rumour surfaced that Rio had ordered the building of another four 60-man accommodation units to plonk down amongst the sand dunes at Winu; such is the scale of the discovery.

Feeding the expectations that Rio could be about to formally announce the discovery has been the “delay’’ this year in the release of its full (calendar) year results. Normally they are realised early in the second week of February.

But this year the release date is February 27. It is unlikely preparations for an announcement on Winu are behind the delay, with pundits suggesting the annual report to shareholders, released about three weeks after the financial results, as a more likely platform for a Winu announcement.

That old nearology chestnut

Either way, the junior sector is hoping an announcement on Winu comes soon. Assuming it as big as suspected — 2m tonnes of copper and growing fast is the latest tip – Winu has the potential to give the juniors a “nearology’’ kick along.

From Stockhead on Vimeo.

In the absence of Rio saying anything on Winu, it was up to the UK-listed Greatland Gold late last year to confirm the Paterson’s hot spot status when it reported a spectacular 275m intersection at depth grading 4.77 grams of gold a tonne and 0.61 per cent copper at its Havieron prospect.

Because the Paterson region ranks as a lightly explored province due to sand cover and its remote location, garnering investor interest on the strength of nearology is nothing to be bashful about for the juniors.

After all, even Andrew Forrest’s $19 billion Fortescue has coat-tailed Rio in to the Paterson, assembling a 5,300sq km land package in the province last year. And the province has recently seen the entry of the $2.8bn Independence Group, and the $3.2bn OZ Minerals, into joint ventures with juniors.

Keeping up with the kopper majors

Independence struck a deal with Encounter Resources (ASX:ENR, trading at 5.8c) on its Yeneena copper-cobalt project. Under the deal, Independence could spend up to $15 million to earn a 70% interest in Yeneena.

OZ’s deal in the Paterson was with Red Metal (ASX:RDM, trading at 11.5c). It was part of a broader deal on six Red Metal projects across the country. But it was the Yarrie project in the Paterson which had the biggest minimum spend commitment from OZ of $2.5m over two years.

Two long-term explorers in the Paterson, Antipa Minerals (ASX:AZY, trading at 2.4c) and Sipa Resources (ASX:SRI, 0.8c) are planning an active year on the ground at their existing project areas near Winu, and at newly generated targets using the same geophysical method as Rio is believed to have used.

Other players in the region Metalicity (ASX:MCT, 1.2c) and Carawine (ASX:CWX, 14.5c) will also be active.

There are lots of other juniors who have taken up ground in the Paterson. Expect to hear more from them on Winu being confirmed.