Minesite restoration overlooks fauna: study

In early 2017 the Australian Senate started an inquiry tasked with investigating the rehabilitation of mining and resources projects.

Following multiple extensions and delays it released its findings in March 2019, concluding the restoration processes of many Australian minesites were severely lacking.

“Over the course of this committee’s deliberations it has become clear that the status quo for mining rehabilitation policy has not worked and that substantial Commonwealth intervention is needed to ensure that community expectations are met when it comes to protecting our environment and human health from the negative impacts of both abandoned and closing minesites,” the report stated.

Another report released two months previous, Overlooked and undervalued: the neglected role of fauna and a global bias in ecological restoration assessments, backed the findings of the Senate inquiry.

The study, published in journal Pacific Conservation Biology, involved a global review of literature relating to minesite restoration and found fauna was under- recognised in assessments of restoration success.

Lead author, PhD student Sophie Cross from the ARC Centre for Mine Site Restoration (CMSR) in Curtin University’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences, said the research highlighted a need for an increased focus on fauna monitoring and behavioural studies as a way of understanding the long-term success of minesite restoration.

“Although mining activity creates a relatively small footprint on the land, 75 per cent of active minesites are situated on land considered to be of high conservation value,” she said.

“Animals are often assumed to return to the area of a minesite following its closure and the return of vegetation, however, in practice restoring animal communities and biodiversity can be exceptionally challenging.

“Our research highlights the need for more detailed consideration of animal communities in minesite restoration, as the common method of vegetation surveys alone may not be sufficient to ascertain the long-term success of restoration measures in effectively reinstating healthy, functional animal communities and ecosystems.”

Ms Cross said studies needed to have a long-term focus over multiple years.

“As an example, one of my studies looks at monitor lizards and restoration,” she said. “This is a project that has been ongoing for more than two years now.

“The first year I was onsite we had no rainfall, there were hardly any signs of life.

“Than the second year we had a fantastic season and there was a whole heap of activity.

“That is something we would have completely missed if we had not gone out and done it a second season.”

Ms Cross’ report found over a 49-year period, just 101 peer-reviewed publications reported on fauna as part of mining restoration activities, with over half from Australia, and almost half of these reports came from Alcoa’s bauxite operations in Western Australia’s South West.

Alcoa Sustainability Manager Dr Andrew Grigg said this was a significant contribution to international discussion and best practice in this field.

“Alcoa’s environmental management here in Western Australia is world’s best practice,” he said. “We are really operating on a global stage.

“Alcoa’s bauxite operations mine in previously logged areas, we don’t mine in virgin or old-growth forest areas and we are very proud of the fact self-sustaining jarrah forests now thrive in areas where Alcoa once mined bauxite.”

The Huntly and Willowdale bauxite mines in the Darling Range south of Perth supply bauxite to Alcoa’s alumina re neries in Kwinana, Pinjarra and Wagerup.

Dr Grigg said a motto of environmental management was etched into the company from the beginning.

“When Alcoa started mining in WA in 1963, the company made a decision that it must operate in a manner that exceeded both government and public expectations in the area of environmental management, and we continue to follow this philosophy today,” he said.

Alcoa has been seen by those within and outside the industry as a leader in the field.

When submitting documents to the Senate inquiry, The Minerals Council of Australia gave Alcoa’s Huntly and Willowdale mines as two positive examples of successful minesite restoration.

Even ‘the Godfather of Biodiversity’ Professor Thomas Lovejoy lauded the e orts made by Alcoa as a benchmark for the mining industry in 2018, calling the approaches of the two sites “sophisticated” and applauding the “sustained effort” Alcoa took in restoring the jarrah forest community.

Alcoa’s minesites exist in an area populated by a diverse range of species, from invertebrates like termites and ants, to mammals such as bats and quokkas and bird communities.

The areas also includes a range of rare and threatened species, such as the black cockatoo, mainland quokka and chuditch.

Alcoa’s strategies for rehabilitation come in many different forms.

“The rehabilitation process, which has been developed and continually improved over decades, involves landscaping, pre-ripping, soil return, fauna habitat return, final contour ripping and seeding, recalcitrant planting, fertilising and ongoing monitoring and management,” Dr Grigg said.

“Alcoa’s strategy for rehabilitation is to restore the land to a stable condition consistent with the aesthetic, environmental, economic and social values of the surrounding community.

“We conduct annual monitoring of plant species richness to measure our performance, with a target of returning 100 per cent species richness to mined areas.”

Alcoa has been monitoring fauna since the early 90s, according to Dr Grigg, with 30 sites currently under watch.

“The monitoring program studies mammals, birds, reptiles and ants approximately every five years in healthy forest, dieback-affected forest, stream zones and rehabilitated areas,” he said.

“Monitoring results have been used to identify species that are slow to recolonise and develop improved techniques for their return.

“An example is the Napoleon skink, which requires cracks and crevices in old logs. Increasing the numbers of logpile fauna habitats, and of suitable single large logs has accelerated the recolonisation of rehabilitated areas by this species.”

Overall however, Ms Cross said there was plenty more that could be done by the wider industry.

“Unfortunately, fauna tends to be overlooked even in the policies,” she said.

“There is room to improve.”

Image: After Rehabilitation at the Huntly mine

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