In Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, the Hazelwood brown coal mine is closed. In the NT, the Ranger uranium mine is due to shut down in four years’ time. They’re very different mines, but with the same problem: what to do with the landscape once the mining stops. From Australia to the Americas, from Europe to South Africa, there are plenty of lessons to be learned, said abc.net.au.
Germany leads by example
One of the best examples of restoring a post-mining landscape comes from Europe, where uranium mining by the once feared and secret Wismut company had created a environmental tragedy.
“It was military mining … a military operation to get the first uranium for the Soviet nuclear bomb,” says Gerhard Schmidt, a senior researcher with the Oeko Institute in Germany. “It was not very sustainable … they mined and milled the ore and put the wastes into large piles of more than 100 million tonnes, some of which are the largest in the world.”
There were about 25 mines — open cut and underground — in East Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and communist rule in Eastern Europe, the full extent of the problem was revealed.
But the Germans decided to do things properly. They designed a 25-year, €8 billion program to clean up the mess and reinvent Wismut, providing jobs for tens of thousands of former mine workers.
From mine to valuable real estate
In America, former mining lands have become valuable real estate, for everything from solar farms to housing estates.
“Reclamation can be done in a way that makes for a very high value post-mining land use,” says Paul Robinson, a research director with the Southwest Research and Information Centre, based in New Mexico.
Mr Robinson points to the old (and once problematic) Questa mine in New Mexico as a success story. “The company has retrofitted its mine with a reclamation plan, developed technology to reclaim very steep slopes that are a difficult problem at many mines, and installed innovative groundwater cut-off barriers to reduce acid drainage reaching streams,” he says.
But he also has concerns that higher levels of regulation around land rehabilitation is driving companies with unsustainable mining practices offshore, to less regulated markets.
What happens in poor countries?
That’s certainly true in South Africa, says Anthony Turton, a water expert and advisor to the mining industry. Mr Turton, also a professor of environmental management at the University of the Free State, says the industry “hasn’t covered itself in too much glory” in his country.
He says there are “little green shoots of hope”, as some companies take old brownfields mining sites and turn them into stable or productive rehabilitated landscapes. But he says pollution and health problems from a century of gold and coal mining now threaten the drinking water of Johannesburg, and South Africa’s ability to feed itself.
Almost 1.8 million people in and around Johannesburg are at “pretty much at ground zero”, he says, exposed to elevated levels of uranium and other contamination. “I’m talking about the poorest of the poor in the case of South Africa,” he says. “These are mostly people living in what we call squatter camps or informal settlements. They almost are all living within the 500-metre exclusion zone around the tailings disposal facility.
Australia is also grappling with a host of environmental problems from old open pit uranium mines. Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory and Mary Kathleen in Queensland both still require hundreds of millions of dollars of additional rehabilitation work, decades after closure.
And Australia has four uranium mines still producing yellowcake, about 30 operating iron ore mines, 40 working copper mines, 40 gold mines, 10 lead-zinc mines, around eight nickel mines and 100 productive coal mines. Gavin Mudd, an associate professor of environmental engineering at RMIT, says Australia is getting better at managing post-mining landscapes — “but we’ve still got a long way to go”.
“The legacy is our landscapes … whether they be open cut mines, waste rock dumps and overburden dumps, basically mountains of waste, and often significantly changed ecosystems,” he says.
“The concern I always have is, have we really factored in the success of rehabilitation and our modern approaches to mining? And what are these landscapes going to look like in 50 years when they are much bigger mines? That’s one of the things that I always worry about, is what will be the long-term environmental outcomes in say 50 years’ time. And I guess that’s an open question.”