Chapter 11. Mining and biodiversity

This chapter looks at the main impacts of mining on biodiversity and how these can be appropriately managed through processes like strategic regional assessments, use of bioindicators in rehabilitation, and biodiversity offsets.

Australia's biodiversity: mining: Watch an interview with author Dr Alan Andersen (06:12)

Show transcript

[Music plays and text appears: Australia’s biodiversity - Mining]

[Image changes to an open cut mine]

[Image changes to a large mining truck]

[Image changes to show Dr. Alan Andersen – Ecologist]

Dr. Alan Andersen: Mining occurs throughout Australia, but any individual mine is really small, and so the total direct impacts on Australia are, you know, on less than 1% of the country, so relatively small.

[Image changes to a map of Australia and text appears: Past, present and prospective mines]

But it’s not the impacts of an individual mine that’s really the issue, it’s the cumulative impacts of a number of mines, particularly prospective regions where there are a lot of mines.

[Image changes to large digger transferring dirt into a large mining tip truck]

[Image changes to a chute moving gravel]

[Image changes to a large factory]

[Image changes to an aerial view of a town and port]

And often it’s not the direct impacts of the mine sites themselves, but it’s the indirect impacts, all the infrastructure that’s needed to service the mines, so all the roads, the pipelines, the towns, the ports, it’s that infrastructure that often has the greater impact on biodiversity than the mines themselves.

[Image changes to an oil rig on the ocean and text appears: Managing cumulative impacts of mining]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Alan Andersen]

So the best way of managing these cumulative and indirect impacts of mining on these highly prospective mineral regions is through a process called strategic regional assessment, where before all the mines come in there’s a general assessment of the biodiversity assets of the whole region, and then this can form an overall planning framework for new and prospective mines.

[Image changes to a group of people recording data in a bush setting]

[Image changes to a woman tying a pink ribbon around a tree and recording data]

[Image changes to two women comparing data recorded]

[Image changes to a man standing in the ocean and handing a turtle to a woman in a boat]

[Image changes to a turtle being tagged]

And this has the advantage of protecting biodiversity in the region, but also providing clear goal posts for the mineral industry, so they can plan their operations.

[Image changes to a person recording data]

[Image changes to a car towing a boat]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Alan Andersen]

So a good example of the strategic regional assessment process is with the Great Barrier Reef.

[Image changes to a satellite picture and text appears: Great Barrier Reef]

[Image changes to boats on the ocean]

[Image changes to dredging machinery on the water]

[Image changes to aerial footage of a reef in the ocean]

[Image changes to fish swimming in the ocean]

Now there’s no mining on The Great Barrier Reef, but there’s a range of indirect impacts of activities on the land in terms of dredging, increased shipping traffic, coastal development, and the strategic regional planning process can identify all the important biodiversity assets of the reef and allow the planning of those things to take place in the most environmentally sensitive way.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Alan Andersen]

[Image changes to a mine site and text appears: Rehabilitating mine sites]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Alan Andersen]

Mining companies now have a requirement to rehabilitate their mine sites, and there’s been a strong move away from just greening up the area affected, to creating sustainable ecosystems that integrate with the surrounding landscape.

[Image changes to a green space beside a city]

[Image changes to a bird perched in a tree]

[Image changes to a bush landscape]

One of the great challenges with mine site rehabilitation is not just doing the rehabilitating, but measuring its success.

[Image changes to a car driving down a dirt road and text appears: Measuring rehabilitation success]

So how can we know when a mine site has been successfully rehabilitated?

[Image changes to two women undertaking an experiment in the back of a car]

And in order to do that we need to go beyond just measuring the plants, which are the things that we actually put there in the first place, but measuring the fauna associated with the plants, and measuring some ecological processes that give us confidence that the ecosystem is in fact a healthy and properly functioning one.

[Image changes to a group of people having a discussion]

[Image changes to a man looking through a microscope and text appears: Bioindicators]

[Image changes to a man picking up an insect and observing it under a light]

And one of the common ways of doing that is to use bioindicators, so plant or animal species that are very important in the ecosystem, and give us a general indication of ecosystem health. And the most widely used animal bioindicator in the mining industry is ants.

[Image changes to ants crawling along the ground]

So ants are arguably the most important faunal group in the Australian environment, in terms of their sheer numbers, their role in turning over nutrients and energy flow, their role in creating soils, and their role in protecting and promoting plant performance, and so most of the major mine sites throughout Australia have had ant monitoring programs to measure the success of their rehabilitation efforts.

[Image changes to ants crawling on a plant]

[Image changes to a person holding an ant]

[Image changes to a woman performing an experiment on the ground]

[Image changes to Dr. Alan Andersen observing a tray of ant specimens]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Alan Andersen]

And so the way it works using ants as bioindicators is that we monitor over time changes in ant species at the rehabilitating sites and compare them to what we call benchmark or reference sites, which are undisturbed sites in the region, and they’re the goal post that we want to get to.

[Image changes to various pictures of two women observing an experiment]

And as species composition and richness converges on that in the reference sites, then we can have some sort of confidence that rehabilitation is occurring successfully.

[Image changes to a mine site and text appears: Biodiversity offsets]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Alan Andersen]

Sometimes mining can have unavoidable impacts on biodiversity, but one way of managing this is through what we call offset programs, where the impacts of biodiversity at say the mine site itself is compensated by broader conservation programs elsewhere in the region. And a really good example is the Arid Recovery Project as part of the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia.

[Image changes to a mine site and text appears: Arid Recovery Project, Olympic Dam mine]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Alan Andersen]

Where the impacts of the mine itself are being compensated, and arguably more than compensated for by this fabulous conservation program involving the reintroduction of all these small mammal species that have become extinct over the last century in South Australia.

[Image changes to a Bilby]

[Image changes to a Numbat]

[Image changes to a Stick Nest Rat]

And so we’re talking about iconic species like Bilbies, and Numbats, and Bettongs, and Stick Nest Rats, and so a wide range of species that use to occur right across arid Australia, but now are extinct throughout most of their range.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Alan Andersen]

And so a big feature of the Arid Recovery Project is the building of these very, very large predator proof exclosures where introduced predators like cats and foxes, and other nasty introductions like rabbits, have been removed, and all these species have been introduced and are now just thriving.

[Image changes to a picture of a feral cat eating a bird carcass]

[Image changes to a picture of rabbits]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Alan Andersen]

And so that’s really you know a fabulous conservation outcome, not just for the region, but you know for the whole nation.

[Image changes to a mine site and text appears: New opportunities]

[Image changes to a picture of a large mining machine]

[Image changes to a picture of the ground that has been mined]

The mining industry has had a pretty poor history of environmental management in the past, but things have changed now with appropriate regulation.

[Image changes to an open cut mine]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Alan Andersen]

And so with strategic environmental assessments, with appropriate offset programs, all the wealth that mines create, there’s a real opportunity for mining to have a net positive outcome for biodiversity in the regions in which they operate.

[Image changes to a Bilby and text appears: MUSIC –; ADDITIONAL FOOTAGE –; ADDITIONAL IMAGES – Geoscience Australia, NASA, Woodside, Marie Davies, Sam Secker, Liz Poon, Malcolm Paterson. Creative Commons images (Flickr, Wikimedia): geomartin, Bernard DUPONT, dilettantiquity, sunphlo]

[Music plays and CSIRO logo appears with text: Big ideas start here]

Hide transcript

The wealth that mining creates gives the industry the opportunity to have a positive effect on biodiversity.

Chapter overview

Compared with other lands uses, such as farming, the direct impacts of mining on biodiversity are often small because of the relatively small areas of land that mines use.

Negative impacts on biodiversity can accumulate when there are multiple mining projects within a region and regional development around mines can spread these negative impacts across a broader area.

There are three main strategies to mitigate the impact of mining on biodiversity:

  • before mining begins, use strategic assessments that look at biodiversity impacts caused by regional development
  • during the life of a mine, offset any unavoidable impacts on biodiversity by supporting conservation activities elsewhere in the region
  • when mines close, rehabilitate mine sites not just to re-establish vegetation cover but to develop self-sustaining ecosystems that interact positively with the surrounding landscape.

Download the chapter or the whole book [PDF and EPUB versions available]

Chapter authors

Alan Andersen, Garry Cook and Nicholas Bax


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