Australia miners seek to clean up image

A wedge-tailed eagle soars above a picturesque hillside blanketed with shrubs and flowers, looking for prey.

“The animals are coming back,” says Damien Ryba, environment and community officer for mining group Glencore. “This is a sign that the land is returning to a natural state.”

Five years ago outsized trucks crowded a track thick with coal dust near the company’s Mangoola mine, one of the biggest open-pit developments in Australia’s Hunter Valley. It is now part of a pilot project by the Switzerland-based miner to rehabilitate former mining sites as it attempts to rebuild support in the community.

Alarmed by growing concerns about new mines, some companies are placing more emphasis on rehabilitating existing ones, particularly in the developed world. These initiatives follow centuries of poor practice that have caused environmental disasters, threatened human health and left taxpayers with large clean-up bills.

There are about 50,000 abandoned mines in Australia. The bill for cleaning them up would stretch to tens of billions of dollars, well beyond the level of financial assurances that miners provide to state governments, analysts say.

“In the past, many smaller companies just disappeared and their mines were abandoned with little or no rehabilitation,” says Peter Erskine, research fellow at the University of Queensland.

“But there has been a societal shift in expectations towards mine rehabilitation, with more communities and governments pushing for miners to properly close operations and leave an enduring positive legacy,” he says.

The Hunter Valley has been a coal region since European colonisation, and produces more than 100m tonnes per year. But the industry has been stung by a decision by planning authorities to refuse permission to Anglo American to expand a nearby mine. Farmers have also won the right to refuse permission for exploration drilling on their land.

“Successful rehabilitation of mined lands costs millions of dollars over the life of a mine,” says Tony Israel, Glencore operations manager at Mangoola.

“But it enables us to maintain our social licence to operate and demonstrate that our operations can and do successfully coexist with local communities and other industries.”

Mangoola’s licence extends to 2026 and any extension must be approved by local authorities.

The pilot project is taking place while mining continues. This enables Glencore to integrate mining activity and rehabilitation, deploying its truck and digger fleets to shape a landform to match the surrounding countryside. Natural drainage lines are being re-established to prevent soil erosion at the site.

The project area stretches for 1,300 hectares and Glencore uses local endemic seed collected to replant the rehabilitated land. It has installed 900 bird boxes and has set up several orchid nurseries to replant rare species in the area.

“We recently identified a masked owl — a threatened species in New South Wales,” says Mr Ryba. “It’s a great result that we are showcasing to the community.”

Glencore has also begun cattle-grazing trials on rehabilitated pastureland at its nearby Liddell mine, successfully selling the first batch of beef produced for the export market. It is producing wine and honey on its land in partnership with local farmers as it seeks to overturn perceptions of coal mining as a dirty, polluting industry.

But anti-coal campaigners warn that such showcase projects are designed to capture positive publicity without addressing the tens of billions of dollars of costs associated with rehabilitation of all abandoned mines.

“While individual rehabilitation projects are a good start, it is important to note that these projects represent a drop in the ocean of what’s required,” says Nikola Casule of Greenpeace.

He says it is impossible to return former coal mines fully to their natural state after mining.

Others say the fact big miners are still only engaging in pilot rehabilitation projects is disgraceful given that some have been excavating sites for decades or even centuries.

“There are ways to game the system. For example, big resource companies can sell on their mines and rehabilitation obligations to small players,” says Tim Buckley, director at the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

“This is why it is essential that regulators push miners to progressively rehabilitate sites as they mine them.”

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