Abandoned Mines: Can a negative legacy become a positive inheritance.

Research finds that there are more than 60,000 abandoned mines across Australia. Unlike other forms of human land use, by their nature the extractive industries are temporary and have a limited life span within one particular geographical area. Once the extraction has occurred, companies move on. As mining has been going on in Australia for more than 200 years, who takes responsibility for these abandoned mines and their rehabilitation? Orphaned mines are mine sites for which an owner cannot be found or no longer exist. Abandoned mines do have an owner but they are financially unable or unwilling to rehabilitate the site. Both pose health and safety, financial and environmental liabilities for communities.  As only a handful have been fully rehabilitated who will pay for and take responsibility for orphaned or abandoned mines?

While mining is promoted as creating employment and contributing to the economy the hidden costs for future generations are not only environmental and climatic, but financial. Some of the worst predictions have the costs of rehabilitating abandoned mines in Australia at more than $17.8 billion. 

Historically mining companies leave behind environmental messes that fall to local communities and government to clean up, using tax revenue to do so. If governments and local communities take on the responsibility for mine rehabilitation this is an externality that is outsourced to government. The wide view on the inequity of mine abandonment also brings into focus that more than 80% of mining companies operating in Australia are overseas owned. And it’s even worse in many other countries where mining profits leave local economies but the heavy environmental and financial burdens remain local.

Mine rehabilitation isn’t cheap. It involves scientific complexities of contamination reduction in water and soil such as reducing acid mine drainage and metal leaching and in the case of uranium mines dealing with ongoing risks of airborne dust and radiation.  This often means the land left behind is inhospitable for humans, animals and some plants for a long time. There are many communities around the world who are exposed to elevated levels of radiation and contamination with no company or government body taking responsibility for the necessary reduction of such risks. Beyond the containment of risks and damage from abandoned or unsafe mine sites there is the cost and need for ecosystem design and regeneration. Good rehabilitation also takes a long time. Mining disrupts and alters geology and ecological cycles that have been built up and sustained over centuries. It is naïve to believe that such intrusive interruptions can be healed within a few months let alone years. This negative legacy that is part of these 60,000 abandoned mines faces the truth that while it’s quick to destroy, healing takes time.

In the last twenty years community awareness has risen about the responsibilities of mining and companies responsibilities in the aftermath of extractive industry activity. This is reflected in the slow growth of mine rehabilitation obligations becoming part of legislation and the provision of permits. This has included the increasing recognition that mine rehabilitation can occur simultaneously to mining activities. (Such as the Progressive Rehabilitation and Closure Plans as required by the Western Australian government since 2002) and the gradual inclusion of such plans into environmental obligations of new mine sites.  This approach takes into account not only the obligation to care for the lands in which industry operates, but also mitigates against the historic tendency to mine and run.   

With more than 60,000 mines across the country needing rehabilitation and care the move towards a participatory restorative approach opens up frames that are not only about land restoration but engage with local communities and their social as well as environmental needs. It is proposed that a good mine closure process begins planning for closure even before ground is broken. Best practice engages multi-disciplinary teams to engage with communities and eco-systems not only to minimise impact but to invite genuine participation. While Energy Resources of Australia is seemingly proud of their multi-million dollar rehabilitation process for the Ranger mine in the Northern Territory the small town of Jabiru, which was born from the uranium mine, has been left out of the rehabilitation plan.

Rehabilitation implies that the former condition of the lands and communities affected by mining can be restored to their prior conditions before the mining occurred. This is utopian and denies the often irreversible changes mining has upon geology and social communities. The eco systems design required involves assessing what is ecologically possible within the changed conditions, rather than attempting to return to what was before.

There have been many innovations across the world on possible uses and community participation in mine rehabilitation. The  Post-Mining Alliance in the UK  disseminated the many creative options which took into account environmental concerns, long term community needs and engagement and many now provide local and national income. They named this project 101 things to do with a Hole in the Ground and included hotels, museums, bioreactors (such as the Mechanical Biological Treatment Facility in NSW) and community parks. The Eden Project in the UK was a ten year project that not only rehabilitated a coal mine but created a biodiversity park, educational facilities, community space, festival hosting and various successful social enterprises.

These projects went from the problem of a negative legacy of abandoned mines to a positive inheritance socially, environmentally and financially. In this context abandoned mines become community and economic opportunities not a liability.  Increased legislation and obligations for mining companies to commence with rehabilitation as the starting point of any project minimises the problem of abandoned mines. However the millions of abandoned mines around the globe remain, for the majority, neglected. While eco-system design and toxicity reduction is essential, there are models and precedents out there where creative and restorative approaches have regenerated communities rather than depleted them.


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