Mining has been a big part of Australia’s history and economic development since the mid-1800s, with the regulatory landscape only beginning to catch up relatively recently, especially when it comes to rehabilitation and environmental considerations. 

While Australia’s modern-day industry has strict approval processes and mine regulations, Curtin University School of Molecular and Life Sciences Distinguished Professor Kingsley Dixon told National Mining Chronicle the country was still some distance from achieving a moderate level of environmental repair. 

Though companies can often achieve safe, stable and non-polluting post-mining landscapes, it is a very different picture when it comes to reinstating representative ecosystems. 

“Companies don’t fully comprehend the complexities associated with essentially putting Humpty Dumpty back together again,” Professor Dixon said. 

“We now have what is called cumulative impacts, with thousands of square kilometres of land needing restoration and growing by the year as more land is cleared for mining.” 

While the need for a social license to operate has led to greater company awareness of community needs and an increased level of community engagement during the development of mining operations, Professor Dixon said the cumulative impact of mining in WA alone had grown exponentially while restoration efforts lagged behind. 

“Globally, the mining industry is struggling to achieve what is now being called a social environmental license to operate,” he said. 

“Mining companies in Australia are all struggling to achieve responsible mine closure that reinstates some semblance of a native ecosystem.” 

In November last year, the Society for Ecological Restoration Australasia (SERA), which Professor Dixon chairs, announced the launch of the second edition of the National Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration in Australia. 

The national standards document identifies the need and purpose of ecological restoration and explains its relationship with other forms of environmental repair. 

The standards are relevant to – and can be interpreted for – a wide spectrum of projects, ranging from minimally resourced community projects to large-scale, well-funded industry or government operations. 

“It is now very clear from the new national standards that the mining industry is expected to reinstate the landscape where nature was destroyed for profit,” Professor Dixon said. 

“Companies need to focus on delivering timely reinstatement of biodiverse nature which is to the satisfaction of local stakeholders and regulators.” 

One of Australia’s major coal producers, Glencore Coal Assets Australia (GCAA) continues to make significant inroads in the area of mine rehabilitation in Australia. 

In 2018, the company received certification from the Queensland Government for the rehabilitation of 220 hectares of previously mined land at its Rolleston open cut coal mine in central Queensland. 

Since starting mining operations in 2005, the Rolleston operation has maintained a strong focus on progressively returning mined land to pasture and has now completed approximately 800 hectares of rehabilitation, with a further 175 hectares scheduled for completion by 2019. 

“We set very high standards for rehabilitation across our site and the results reflect a whole-of-mine involvement in planning and delivery,” GCAA Rolleston Open Cut Environment and Community Manager Ken Dixon said. 

“Our people take a lot of pride in the rehabilitation work and this certification is the result of that team effort. 

“The area that has been certified complies with conditions for sustainable post-mining use and in coming years will be used for grazing cattle.” 

The accreditation was the second time GCAA received certification for its mine rehabilitation efforts in Queensland. In 2017, GCAA achieved a first in Bowen Basin coal mining history, recognised for its rehabilitation of overburden spoil at its Newlands operations. 

Glencore Queensland Environment and Community Manager Pieter Swart said the certification of rehabilitation at Rolleston Open Cut and Newlands reflected a focus across all of the company’s coal operations on rehabilitating and restoring land progressively during a mine’s life, as well as when mining activities have ceased. 

“We are very pleased to receive certification for our rehabilitation at Rolleston and Newlands,” he said. 

“In the five years between 2013 and 2017, our Queensland sites rehabilitated more than 2100 hectares of land, which is equivalent to almost 3000 rugby league fields.” 

Law firm Lantegy Legal works with and supports global corporations across the minerals and resources sector, from underground and open cut operations to o shore petroleum, extractive industries and other linear infrastructure and industrial processing. 

Lantegy Legal Director Robyn Glindemann said there had been a greater focus on minesite rehabilitation in modern times. 

“Now we have the legally binding requirements to submit a mine closure plan by the time mine companies begin operating, there is a greater focus on whole-of-life-cycle management, which is extremely pleasing,” she said. 

Ms Glindemann said these legally binding requirements were the mining equivalent of cradle-to-grave management. 

“The change going on in the mining sector is reflecting a broader focus on waste management for manufacturing and production,” she said. 

“We really need to be thinking at a much greater level about the entire life cycle of what we produce, whether it’s raw materials, iPads or clothes.” 

Ms Glindemann said mine companies and regulators needed to remain focused on the mine’s closure throughout the life of mining, considering not just the planning, but financial provisioning. 

“The challenge for both the regulators and mine companies is recognising companies won’t have the perfect plan when they begin,” she said. 

“Companies need to always have an eye on what the site will look like when they eventually walk away.” 

Ms Glindemann said she believed more ongoing regulation was needed to hold companies to account. 

“From my point of view, I want governments to do more long-term planning,” she said. 

“Mining companies are expected to plan the next 50 years of mine life, so the highest level of governance needs to plan ahead too. 

“The government needs to develop the courage to plan beyond the electoral cycle – this refers to governments all over Australia.” 

Ms Glindemann said more needed to be done to ensure the industry acted in the interests of sustainability and to restore the environment. 

“It’s ultimately a shared responsibility,” she said. “The cost of closure and rehabilitation is part of the mine company’s responsibility, but at some point that risk and liability needs to get transferred to the state, which is what a relinquishment policy is.” 

Ms Glindemann said without a clear relinquishment policy, Australia would continue to be left with 100-year-old mines. 

Professor Dixon said Australia had shown an eagerness to welcome mining industry investment, but in many respects it seemed to be at a cost to the environment. 

“In terms of returning the land to a usable state, the industry is still a long way away from achieving that,” he said. 

“Cumulative impact is growing in Australia and the industry needs to work with the government on achieving real demonstrations and outcomes that prove rehabilitation can be achieved. 

“We want communities of the future to approve new mines and feel comfortable they won’t be left with scars and damaged landscapes.” 

Image: Mines like BHP’s Mount Whaleback illustrate the size and scale of restoration to come in Western Australia. Image: Kingsley Dixon.