Modern mining practices have seen an increased demand for sustainable resource extraction and environmental stewardship, including the effective rehabilitation of mine sites and their surrounding environment upon closure. Planning for rehabilitation is critical and needs to be factored into all stages of a mine life cycle, from project inception and pre-feasibility onwards.

The legacy of mining activities can often endure long after a mine has closed. Identification and mitigation of environmental and social risks, and identification of potential opportunities to transition a mining community away from mining and into other income streams from the outset is a necessity for the industry, government and community. Early closure planning and robust iterative mine closure plans are essential to secure the long-term viability, social licence to operate and environmental health of mining operations.

The Mine Land Rehabilitation Authority (MLRA) works closely with industry, government and community to facilitate good rehabilitation outcomes for the rehabilitation of declared mines in Victoria.

The legislation governing mining in Victoria is the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990. It defines a declared mine as a mine or quarry in Victoria declared by the Minister to have geotechnical or hydrogeological factors within that pose a significant risk to public safety, the environment or infrastructure.

Mine rehabilitation: beginning at the beginning

A common misconception is that mine rehabilitation commences only after a mine has reached or is reaching its end-of-life, but MLRA’s Technical Director, Antonia Scrase, said that the closure planning process should start the moment the project is being designed, and that closure options and costings need to be considered from pre-feasibility stage onwards. If closure is not considered at these early stages, options will be severely restricted and there is a potential that opportunities will be missed, with end closure costs far exceeding expectations.

With current mechanisms for long-term costs used by mining companies, it is often seen as fortuitous for companies to push closure costs further into the future. Therefore, delaying the work that needs to be done to understand the many underlying issues and hurdles to achieving closure, as well as potentially delaying progressive rehabilitation, and reducing the overall risks and costs of final closure.

“This approach can leave little room for adaptation of rehabilitation techniques or focus which can reduce options and increase project costs,” Ms Scrase said.

It is therefore vital that all viable closure options are well understood and costed at the early stages. Closure planning needs to allow for the ongoing operational, legislation, social and environmental changes that occur during the mine’s life cycle.

Different outcomes for different situations

Definitions of mine rehabilitation success are site specific, but generally most mine companies or landowners are seeking to leave physically and chemically stable, safe and sustainable environments – where the asset/land is not sterilised but able to be re-used for sequential land uses, driving new economies. The rehabilitated mines should assist in the transition of mining communities away from mining economies.

Mining companies usually define success of rehabilitation through closure objectives and closure criteria. These are often physical parameters that can be demonstrated and checked off as part of a process, which leads to surrender/relinquishment of the mining licence. But true success potentially comes further down the line, when the land has transitioned to other non-mining land uses and mining is a distant memory.

Below are some examples of “good” or “successful” rehabilitation projects, although the true level of success of each example will only be possible to gauge in due course:

Collie, Western Australia

This example has been created from a closed mine and the mine operator was no longer involved in the site. After some significant time through collaborative community leadership, the site has been rehabilitated and is now a tourist attraction.(1)

Ruhr Valley, Germany

This location is considered to be on the pathway to having fully transitioned from a coal industrial landscape into a tourist location with many different thriving tourist businesses.(2)

The Beenup Titanium mine, Western Australia

This site has been rehabilitated by the mining company and it has achieved its closure criteria and is on the pathway to the relinquishment of its mining licence.(3)

Eden Project, Cornwall, UK

This location is often deemed a mine closure success, due to its incorporating tourism attractions. Again, the rehabilitation was not undertaken by the mining company and occurred some period of time after mining had ceased.(4)

“It’s worth noting that in the cases of Collie and the Eden Project, success has come after the mining company has exited and other entities have stepped into the void,” Ms Scrase said.

“It is interesting that the Eden Project has now formed from the success of the Eden Project Cornwall. The Eden Project now seeks to invest in the redevelopment of further industrial and mine closure projects around the world, including the Eden Project in Anglesea Victoria, which it is aiming to support the concept for a world class eco-tourism attraction on the site of a former coal mine.”

Also worth noting in these ‘successful’ examples is that they are largely collaborative projects – between the landowners/mine companies, government and community. Mining companies are unlikely to be able to achieve successful transitions to new economies without collaboration between other interested parties and government.

Eden Project, Cornwall, UK

Creating a mine closure plan

Rather than being created at a project’s inception and then forgotten about, mine closure plans are meant to be dynamic documents and are required to undergo regular review and updating with new information. As time and the project progresses, the plans should be refined to ensure they reflect the most up-to-date knowledge relevant to the development and rehabilitation status of the mine.

A closure plan is a multidisciplinary document which includes many technical aspects, including environmental and social elements. The documents are usually relatively long and complex by the end of mining, so it is important for readers’ understanding to summarise the whole project upfront – setting out what the plan is trying to achieve, how it will get there and how it will demonstrate its success.

“When developing a mine closure plan, companies should refer to their local and national legislation and best practice guidelines. All states and nations have different requirements for their closure plans. Unless companies understand and close out these requirements, mine rehabilitation and mine licence relinquishment/surrender is unlikely to ever be achieved,” Ms Scrase said.

There are several key elements that appear to cross state and international guidelines for mine closure planning and preparing mine closure plans. These are well detailed in the ICMM Closure Guidelines and generally include but are not limited to:

  • Closure vision, principles and objectives
  • Post-closure landforms and potential land uses
  • Legislated requirements, obligations and commitments
  • Knowledge base
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Closure risk and opportunities assessments
  • Closure criteria (success criteria)
  • Closure execution
  • Monitoring and maintenance
  • Closure costs
  • Relinquishment

Mine closure planning is evidence-based and therefore transparency and provision of relevant technical studies and designs are key.

“When developing their plan, it is wise for companies to engage with government early and attempt to bring them on the journey of closure. Leaving government and stakeholder engagement to late in the day will undoubtedly raise questions that could have been answered along the closure road to rehabilitation.”

The Mine Land Rehabilitation Authority

As an independent non-regulatory authority, the MLRA serves as a source of information for declared mine rehabilitation in Victoria, and is also a statutory referral agency on all Declared Mine Rehabilitation Plans. The MLRA also sits on the Technical Reference Group (TRG) for the Environmental Effects Statement process that the declared mines may have to go through as part of getting approval for the closure/ rehabilitation plans.

The MLRA is there to facilitate good rehabilitation outcomes for Declared Mines in Victoria.

“Currently there are three declared mines in Victoria, all located in the Latrobe Valley. The MLRA also provides a source of unbiased information and education to the wider community on mine rehabilitation,” Ms Scrase said.

“In order to facilitate good rehabilitation outcomes, the MLRA assists in legislative clarification and change, providing advice to government and industry on mine closure planning and rehabilitation.

“Once mine licensees have achieved closure criteria, paid into the Declared Mine Fund (DMF) and have surrendered the licences, the land is registered by the MLRA on to the Declared Mine Land Register.

“The mining licence no longer exists and the landowner takes responsibility for any ongoing monitoring and maintenance work associated with the historic mining activities. At this point, the MLRA will take on administration of the DMF and either be responsible for ensuring the landowner takes on the post-closure monitoring and maintenance work or by becoming the next landowner and undertaking the work.

“In this area, Victoria is starting to develop mechanisms for managing the residual liabilities aimed to limit financial impact on future generations.”

Mining’s social licence to operate is intrinsically linked to how mining companies are seen to perform in a number of ways, particularly being seen/known to be able to close and rehabilitate mines to a suitable standard.

As community and government have become more aware of mine closure and the ongoing costs associated, it becomes even more important to achieve the transition of mines to a new state that does not drain resources from future generations. This transition can only be achieved through collaboration between mining companies, government, community and interested parties.

Footnotes:

  1.  Alex (2023). From a coal mine to a world-class recreational lake. [online] The Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia. Available at: https://www.cmewa.com.au/safer-smarter-cleaner/articles/from-a-coal-mine-to-a-world-class-recreational-lake/ [Accessed 16 February 2024].
  2. Germany: The Ruhr Region’s Pivot from Coal Mining to a Hub of Green Industry and Expertise. (2021). www.wri.org. [online] Available at: https://www.wri.org/update/germany-ruhr-regions-pivot-coal-mining-hub-green-industry-and-expertise. (Accessed 16 February 2024).
  3.  Bhp.com. (2023). Closure and water management at Beenup. [online] Available at: https://www.bhp.com/news/case-studies/2018/08/closure-and-water-management-at-beenup. (Accessed 16 February 2024)
  4.  The Eden Project. (n.d.). Visit Eden. [online] Available at: https://www.edenproject.com/visit. (Accessed 16 February 2024)
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