Ten thousand abondoned mines in WA and no fix in sight
Originally published by WA Today.
A Senate committee tasked with investigating the mine rehab (rehabilitation) of thousands of abandoned mines has failed to agree on a way forward despite many long delays in delivering its ultimately inconclusive report.
There are around 10,000 abandoned mine sites across WA.
Collapses in commodity prices or demand, cost spirals or changes in government can all trigger a company to abandon their mine, with taxpayers left to pick up the bill for what’s left: ugly, dangerous or even toxic.
Holding companies to account is a growing problem in Australia; the committee held public hearings across six states and visited numerous sites, including two in the Pilbara, in an effort to find answers.
At a public hearing in Perth a year ago, West Australian mining industry representatives struggled to point to even a single instance of a mine site having been rehabilitated to a high standard.
The committee was supposed to take six months. It has ended up taking two years, having been granted no fewer than seven extensions. And it could not agree on a set of recommendations.
Committee chairwoman, Victorian Greens Senator Janet Rice, wrote that this was “disappointing”.
The Australian Greens made 32 recommendations, amounting to a significant boost to Commonwealth involvement. They wanted a complete inventory of mine sites, more research funding, enforceable targets, legal changes and establishment of a national oversight body.
Tasmanian Liberal Senator Jonathon Duniam made no specific recommendation but wrote that the primary responsibility rested with the states. He said any nationwide proposals that placed retrospective or additional obligations on companies could jeopardise the “continued operation of Australia’s resources sector” and put existing projects at risk.
Labor senators made one recommendation: that rehab-related conditions, as well as provisions relating to “care and maintenance”, be included in consultations for the upcoming review of Australia’s key national environmental law, the EPBC Act.
How you rehab a mine
In this context, the term includes designing and constructing landforms and establishing sustainable ecosystems, depending on the use aimed for. This includes reconstructing a soil ‘profile’, choosing species, establishing plants and introducing animals.
The term rehab needn’t mean you create a similar ecosystem to the one before; for example, it might mean replacing a woodland with a plantation or grazing land.
The term ‘restoration’ is used for an attempt at re-establishing something like the original ecosystem.
Planning and prep for rehab should go on throughout the life of the mine (when staff are on site and cashflow is healthy) but often the regulatory system makes a big difference to what’s agreed on and what’s delivered.
At a minimum, companies know they are expected to create something “safe, stable and non-polluting”, though they often fail to achieve that.
WA’s ARC Centre for Mine Restoration told the committee government instructions were often vague and simplistic, leaving widespread industry confusion.
The science on best practice is still emerging as a specialty field (spearheaded in WA by the ARC Centre) and the ARC Centre commented that the industry was not sufficiently equipped to provide real restoration.
Too often, once a company had created a stable, non-polluting landform, it approached restoration as a ‘gardening exercise’ with the expectation that simply spreading seeds or planting tubestock would result in a functioning, resilient and biodiverse system.
“As history shows, across Australia this approach has been met with almost universal failure,” they submitted.
The committee saw firsthand some of the difficulties companies face in the complex project of rehab when visiting BHP’s Pilbara northern tenements including Yarrie mine, closed in 2014 and still being rehabilitated, and the former mining town of Shay Gap, closed in 1994, now considered fully rehabilitated.
BHP is managing weeds, planting habitats and monitoring, with the aim to eventually return the sites to pastoralists for low-level grazing.
But it has faced challenges such as herds of wild camels (and horses and donkeys), the arid climate, rainfall fluctuation, and the difficulty of propagating seeds – it was getting only a 2-3 per cent success rate in germinating spinifex seeds before doing further research, with help from other organisations, which managed to raise this to 40-50 per cent.
‘No major mine sites relinquished in WA’
The Australia Institute told the inquiry that “seemingly simple questions are very difficult to answer”; that most state governments did not have or did not publish simple data on how many mines were operating, how many abandoned, how many closed, how many suspended.
The best data available for WA is from 2012 and suggests there were 9870 abandoned mines.
“Relinquishments of mine sites that are fully rehabilitated and suitable for alternative further use are extremely rare. No examples or statistics could be found of relinquishment of major mine sites in the big mining states of Western Australia or Queensland,” it submitted.
“There is no single example of a rehabilitated and relinquished large, open cut mine in Australia.”
The inquiry noted a study that found only 25 per cent of mine closures in Australia were planned, leaving 75 per cent “either premature or unplanned”, left in suspension for years or simply abandoned.
No definitive national costings were available but the committee heard evidence the cost of rehabilitating all major abandoned mine sites in Australia would run into the billions.
Western Australia used to have a bond system but now has a financial assurance scheme based primarily on a pooled rehabilitation fund, with QLD following suit.
The Mining Rehabilitation Fund is fed by levies from miners to ensure a perpetual funding source for the WA government to respond to impacts and risks from abandoned mines.
As at the end of the 2017 financial year, there were five projects funded by the program.
The first is Ellendale Diamond Mine in the Kimberley region, abandoned in 2015, now managed by the state while it undertakes an Expression of Interest process for a new operator.
Black Diamond Pit Lake and Pro-Force Plant Site have been rehabilitated while Bulong Nickel Tailings Storage Facility and the Elverton Dumps are in the planning stage.
The WA government told the inquiry that it expected the interest gained by the MRF would total $10 million each year, allowing for a rehab program on a realistic scale for government to deliver, and also allowing for secure, long-term planning for long term projects.
Corporate responsibility (or lack thereof)
The inquiry heard widespread concerns relating to business practices allowing industry to deliberately avoid rehabilitation.
The first was the practice of mines being placed indefinitely into ‘care and maintenance’, where the site is maintained and infrastructure remains intact until production recommences or the mine is closed.
In some cases, care and maintenance was used to avoid rehab even with no prospect of operations recommencing.
All the company had to do was keep the site safe and stable and there was no need for the proponent to provide certainty as to when they would recommence operations, or close and rehabilitate the mine.
The second concern was larger mining companies selling mines to smaller operators towards the end of the mine life, with significant rehabilitation liabilities outstanding, another possible strategy to avoid rehabilitation obligations.
This was a particular risk where the costs of rehabilitation had been significantly underestimated; in these instances, requirements that the new operator must have sufficient funds to meet any rehabilitation liabilities were meaningless, one submission said.
‘Voids to the horizon’
By contrast, for the past 40 years, the US federal government has required miners to restore land ‘to a condition capable of supporting the uses it could support before mining, or to higher or better uses’, as well as requiring operators to restore the original approximate land contours.
Professor Kingsley Dixon, head of the ARC Centre, giving evidence to the inquiry in Perth, described coal pits in Collie as “voids to the horizon” and said “backfilling” such pits was, at this stage, beyond current technical ability.
The inquiry discussed at length whether, and when, companies should be allowed to leave pit voids and waste rock dumps as an accepted part of ‘rehab’ plans.
The Australian Conservation Foundation submitted that a conscious decision to allow open pits and voids to remain post-mining was “extremely contentious”, and argued that in such cases it was a decision by regulators that explicitly favoured corporate interest over that of the community and environment.
It said backfilling might not necessarily lead to an “optimal environmental or social outcome” and, in some instances may be physically impossible.
Professor David Mulligan of the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation at the University of QLD commented that the discussion had largely been around the strip mines of the coal industry.
“While we possibly needed to accept the unlikelihood of voluntary backfilling where another viable, safe and economic use for the void can be identified and proven, there would seem to be limited arguments … to allow approvals for new coal mines, for example, to plan to leave a final void,” he said.
Committee members heard when they travelled to Rio Tinto’s active Yandicoogina iron ore mine in the Pilbara that so much earth was taken from the pits that it was not possible to backfill them.
They told the committee about 80 per cent of the cost of rehab was in earthworks, and cost estimates often increased during the life of a mine.
But Rio’s pit modelling suggested there would “not be a detrimental environmental impact resulting from [Yandicoogina’s] voids”.
Rehabilitation was planned to involve creating the deepest pit lakes possible with the smallest possible surface area to limit surface evaporation of water.
BHP told the inquiry that depending on the environmental impact, the company might decide to partially backfill its voids in the Pilbara northern tenements to a level above the water table, if the water was of poor quality.
Senator Janet Rice thanked all who participated in the inquiry.
She hoped that “despite disagreement over the final recommendations, that this inquiry serves as a useful evidence base for the critical reforms that must happen.”
The federal government has no obligation to provide a response to the report, and it is as yet unclear whether it will.
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