Over many years, Australia’s vast landscape has done wonders for the nation’s economic prosperity – offering diverse mineral endowment, often hidden beneath globally unique ecosystems.

The mining industry’s awareness and appreciation of its surroundings has come a long way since its formative days – many companies actively repair impacted land as they go – and with regulations in place in each state to ensure responsible environmental management on minesites, so too has government policy.

One area which has always stimulated significant public and industry debate is minesite rehabilitation. At present, a Federal Senate inquiry is underway into Commonwealth responsibilities in the rehabilitation of mining and resources projects.

The inquiry calls into question the adequacy of existing state and territory-based regulatory arrangements on mine closure and rehabilitation, and is investigating the effectiveness of current practices. The inquiry is scheduled for report in October.

With a view to the broader debates around social license and cost of operation, National Mining Chronicle touched base with some industry experts to get their take on rehabilitation technology, policy and getting things right.

Top-notch rehabilitation tech

Compared with many nations around the world, Australia is a mining rehabilitation world leader, according to ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Mine Site Res- toration Director and 2016 WA Scientist of the Year Kingsley Dixon.

The federally funded ARC Centre is at the forefront of mine restoration technology, coordinating research between Curtin University, the Botanic Gardens and Park Authority and The University of Western Australia, alongside major industry partners including BHP Billiton, Sinosteel Midwest Corporation, Karara Mining, Mineral Resources and Cliffs Natural Resources.

Professor Dixon said Australian mines were, in his experience, some of the best around the world, but making such a comparison was unjust as Australia’s landscape presented unique and diverse challenges.

“The big issue in Australia is we mine on a country that’s more diverse than 98 per cent of other countries,” he said.

“It means the impacts we have are usually very great, and therefore, the need to rehabilitate and restore those mines brings a greater responsibility than it would in most other countries on earth.

“We do well, but it’s still a long way to go to get to a level I believe would make getting approvals easier for industry; this will happen as we get smarter and more effective at rehabilitating and restoring mines.”

Part of the ARC Centre’s responsibility is to bring together science and industry to solve realistic problems faced in minesite rehabilitation on the ground.

Despite having been open for less than a year, Professor Dixon said results had so far been extremely promising – particularly in areas relating to plants.

The centre has pioneered the Smart Seed program, which aims to eradicate costly seed misfires by ensuring a higher rate of return when planting on mining land.

“The mining industry in Australia typically spends, I would guess, in the vicinity of $30-40 million on seed, but an awful lot of seed is typically wasted because the technology and techniques used are often quite primitive,” Professor Dixon said.

“What we’ve been able to do, and this is early days, but exciting stuff – we’ve been able to take the 98 seeds that would have been lost, put them in special pallets and then into special coats and enable each of those seeds to become a winner.”

Another development has been the work of the genetics team headed by Dr Paul Neville, which has made significant ground on meta-barcoding – testing soil to establish how well a site is progressing towards full ecological health.

The introduction of national standards for the practice of ecological restoration in Australia – a five-star site- rehabilitation rating system prepared by the Society for Ecological Restoration Australasia Standards Reference Group, of which Professor Dixon is Chair – has also been enthusiastically received by areas of the industry.

Legacy issues and lasting impressions

Australia may do better than some on the mining rehabilitation front, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues with the system as it stands, according to RMIT University School of Engineering’s Gavin Mudd.

Professor Mudd counts environmental impact management and rehabilitation of mine waste amongst his areas of expertise and said he felt a national audit was required to establish just how many polluting mines were out there.

“I could draw a huge number of dots on the map of all the polluting mines that I’ve been to,” he said.

“Some of those are legacy sites from a different era before we had environmental regulations and so on – sites like Mount Lyell or Mount Morgan – but there are so many other modern sites like Redbank, Mount Todd and Benambra, that were regulated in the modern era, but weren’t cleaned up.

“Either there was no rehabilitation bond, or the rehabilitation hasn’t worked – that raises a lot of issues. To me, one of the things we critically need to understand is even when you do rehabilitation, it doesn’t always work perfectly.

“A national audit would help us actually understand the various risks out there – physical and otherwise.”

Mr Mudd said the current state-based bond and rehabilitation fund systems in place for mine rehabilitation tended to be short-sighted, with mining legacies typically lasting longer than is often initially considered.

“Say you’ve got an old gold mine around Coolgardie that goes bankrupt, then sure, the government will step in and use the bond to do the rehabilitation works, and now there’s the Mining Rehabilitation Fund in WA which seems to be having some successes,” he said.

“But what happens 20-30-50 years down the track, when the covers get eroded or tree roots have gone through the covers and things like that – you’re re-exposing that material and almost back to square one.”

Mr Mudd said more money needed to be allocated to minesite rehabilitation through bonds and by companies operating projects. He said while the industry may not like the idea of paying more, the excess cost incurred as a result did not have to present as a negative for mining companies.

“If the industry started to accept that by dealing with these things they would get, maybe not community support, but they would be dealing with community concerns and get a lot less opposition, that would make it much more favourable for project development, proposal and expansion,” he said.

“There’s a good business case there, but it’s not the usual business case industry is used to thinking about.”

Picture credit: Coal & Allied.