Originally published by WA Today.
West Australian mining industry representatives have struggled to point to even a single instance of a mine site having been rehabilitated to a high standard.
There are upwards of 11,000 abandoned mine sites and about 200,000 abandoned mining “features” across WA, features meaning things such as storage facilities, pits, shafts and tailings.
Mines get abandoned for many reasons: commodity prices collapsing or demand dipping, costs spiralling, lower than expected ore grades, regulatory breaches, changes in policy or government.
In these cases companies leave the taxpayer to clean up their messes: resulting in what are at best eyesores, at worst safety or public health risks.
Holding companies to account is a growing problem in Australia and the subject of a Senate inquiry.
Evidence given at the Perth hearing on Wednesday revealed company projections of mine closure costs, including rehabilitation costs, are not required to be disclosed, despite the legal loopholes that allow companies to skip out on these costs by going into liquidation.
Alcoa declined to tell the committee what it was spending on restoration, which the committee said was “disappointing”, though not an indication of wrongdoing.
Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA natural resources manager Bronwyn Bell declined to comment on whether the chamber thought rehabilitation cost projections should be made public.
Kimberley Diamond Company left the government with up to $40 million in rehabilitation costs via this loophole when it abandoned its Ellendale mine in 2015.
Worse, the miner had in 2013 cashed out $12 million in bonds, which it had paid the government as a surety in case of unexpected mine closure but that the government had refunded when it retired the bonds system.
The inquiry also heard that while a national standard for ecological restorations of mine sites was launched in 2016 by Perth’s ARC Centre for Mining Restoration, examples of such standards being met were rare across Australia.
The Minerals Council of Australia’s submission to the inquiry said the high returns and relatively short durations of mining as a land use provided perfect opportunities for excellent environmental management.
But when senators asked representatives of the Council and the CME to point to an example of best practice in rehabilitation in WA they could not.
They mentioned BHP Billiton often showed off a Kimberley site that had been well looked after but they did not have any specific knowledge of why. They also mentioned a well known example from Victoria but could not give an equivalent from WA.
Centre for Mining Restoration director Kingsley Dixon said the scientific community was already aware there were limited examples. He said the hearing showed the committee had a fairly clear understanding that the industry was “struggling to find an exemplar among existing restoration efforts”.
He said while many sites in WA could potentially be restored to the level of a functioning ecosystem, some had so dramatically changed the landscape that restoration on this level was impossible.
Prof Dixon described coal pits in Collie as “voids to the horizon” and said “backfilling” such pits was, at this stage, beyond current technical ability.
“I frankly don’t know what we should do with holes that now measure in the cubic kilometres,” he said.
“Pit voids, ecologically and naturally, don’t provide a surface for the environment to return.”
Professor Dixon said the iron ore industry in the Pilbara alone had a 2000-3000-square-kilometre footprint, when all mining infrastructure was totalled up.
Back-of-the-envelope reckoning estimated single mines could cost up to a billion dollars each to rehabilitate.
“There are very significant issues around self-regulation and adherence,” he said
Prof Dixon told the committee companies including Rio Tinto, Alcoa and BHP were operating under state agreement acts that set up contradictory situations in environmental planning in WA, and in some cases silenced federal environmental controls.
This had significance when some of the environmental assets at stake, such as nesting hollows for endangered black cockatoos, took hundreds of years to develop.
The committee discussed at length how Alcoa could not restore aged forest – the prime habitat for black cockatoos.
Alcoa was the only company in WA that could remove potential habitat for the species without recourse to the federal act applicable companies not operating under state agreement acts.
“There is more loss of habitat on this continent than ever before,” Prof Dixon said.
“You cannot restore ancient systems … this will resonate in future generations.”
The Senate inquiry is tasked with finding out total liabilities for current projects.
In giving evidence, WA’s Department of Mines acting deputy Director General Phil Gorey could not be drawn on an estimate of the total liability the state could face.
But he believed the Mining Rehabilitation Fund, which began in 2013, and collected levies from industry for the government to carry out mine rehab (rehabilitation) for unsafe sites, was sufficient.
The pool totalled $122 million and was collecting almost $30 million a year. A handful of pilot projects, including the Black Diamond Pit Lake in Collie, had ranged in cost from tens of thousands to the “single millions”.
Dr Gorey said there was potential for a national approach to legal reform, to avoid a repeat of the Ellendale situation.
He also wanted increased transparency from mining companies over cost projections. This would also be best with a uniform approach, so companies could not push back with a claim that meeting different requirements for different states was too hard.
The Minerals Council of Australia and the Chamber of Minerals and Energy submitted that there was no need for increased regulation, saying existing jurisdictional systems “sufficiently and comprehensively” regulated the sector and safeguarded the state from liability.
The Senate inquiry is also tasked with finding out potential benefits and job opportunities from increased focus on rehabilitation – something the ARC Centre for Mining Restoration has named the potential “restoration economy”.
The inquiry is due to make its report on the second last sitting day of the autumn sittings of 2018.
Find out how mine rehabilitation legislation in Australia is changing in our FREE guide.