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By Michael McRae 2 July 2020 6 min read

Kapunda was home to South Australia’s first profitable copper mine in the mid-19th century.

The bones of old mines and their potential legacy impacts on Australia’s environment and regional communities are images today’s mining industry is working hard to avoid.

To do so, companies are reshaping the way they engage and plan for transition to closure that includes post-mine environmental and community values and expectations.

To help mining communities develop ways to better support our ever-evolving mining industry in sustainable mining, the Australian Government has funded a Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) on Transformations in Mining Economies (TiME).

CRC TiME’s CEO Dr Guy Boggs said Australia’s mining boom had contributed greatly to wealth and living standards, but as resources were mined we would see an increasing number of projects approaching closure.

“With several large mines around Australia reaching their end and closing in the next ten years, this joint effort will position Australia as a global leader in mine rehabilitation and closure and ensure our regional communities have the capacity to capitalise on opportunities for post mine development,” Dr Boggs said.

“CRC TiME has the potential to create hundreds of new opportunities and regional jobs through the implementation of restoration activities and increased supply of closure and post closure products and services.

“CRC TiME brings together Australia’s leading researchers to deliver new solutions to this highly complex challenge. With world leading expertise and significant capability, the CSIRO is a major contributor to our partnership.”

Ptilotus flowers in a mine in South Australia.

The CRC has commenced July 1, providing a collaborative platform involving industry, government, research organisations, including Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, and diverse members of the community. It will deliver knowledge, technologies and solutions for a vision of sustainable mine closures and regional economic opportunities.

Dr Jason Kirby, who leads CSIRO’s involvement in the new CRC, said the CRC will drive transformational change in the mining industry through a clear shared vison of post-mining options, benefits and outcomes.

“It will look at harmonised concepts of risk; and intervention technologies and solutions to enable regions and communities to transition to a prosperous and sustainable post-mine future,” he said.

It’s an ambitious goal by any measure. Like any commodity, resources pulled from the ground are sold at the whims of an unpredictable global market. Every nugget of ore must turn a profit for its recovery to be worth the effort.

Meanwhile, society’s expectations about how our nation’s natural resources are managed are evolving. To maintain the environment for future generations, mining needs to be sustainable. To satisfy diverse cultural needs, values must be respected, and mining must demonstrate a “social license to operate”. And when a mine reaches its end-of-life, the community depending on it needs support in transitioning to a post-mine future.

“The broader community’s expectations of the mining sector are high,” said Dr Kirby.

“Acknowledging and addressing these will ensure the mining sector continues to contribute strongly to the national economy and Australian society into the future.”

TiME for changes

In 2018, a national Senate inquiry into the rehabilitation of mining and Commonwealth resource projects made it clear that any question-mark over the fate of a mine site puts its very finances at risk. In a world where social and environmental responsibilities increasingly matter to shareholders, mines with no clear shared vision for transitioning to closure, including final landforms and regional economic value and benefits, aren’t attractive investments.

Good science and robust technology are key to ensuring environments are well protected into the future. A collaboration between CSIRO, Australian Wetlands Consulting, and Evolution Mining’s Mt Rawdon Operation has been trialling an integrated wastewater management process involving a synthetic clay using Virtual Curtain technology, along with a series of constructed wetlands using biological-driven processes to remove pollutants.

New methods for ore extraction could also extend the life of mines previously abandoned or closed for environmental or economic reasons. Emerging technology called in-situ recovery (ISR), may provide an economically viable and low environmental footprint process to targets minerals, such as gold or copper, in the ground by circulating a fluid(s) through an area’s geology.

Under some circumstances, ISR could be used for mineral extraction without disrupting the countryside at abandoned or legacy mine sites. South Australia’s first profitable copper mine in the mid-19th century, is a historical test site for ISR, with more than 100,000 tonnes of copper potentially recoverable through the process.

CSIRO is evaluating the extraction, environmental impacts, and community expectations of this ISR process through a $2.8 million project at the Kapunda mine.

CRC TiME’s partnership presents a unique opportunity to establish a National Demonstration Mine Site Network to provide a pathway to develop, test, and demonstrate innovative and emerging technologies and solutions in mine environments, said Dr Kirby.

The historic Brukunga pyrite mine site in the in the Mt. Lofty Ranges, South Australia.

Ecosystem trajectories

But how do we return a mine site to a healthy and biodiverse ecosystem, how long does it take, what will it cost, and when will we know we’re on track to achieving this goal?

Providing more certainty around costs and timelines for ecosystem rehabilitation enables mining companies to effectively plan for these from the start, increasing the likelihood of mine relinquishment and improving environmental outcomes for the whole community.

A collaborative project between CSIRO, federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, and Energy Resources Australia is using ecosystem models, known as state and transition models, to capture our best understanding of ecosystem recovery pathways after mining, including both desirable and undesirable trajectories.

Recognising when ecosystems are deviating down an undesirable pathway, such as invasive weed problems, early on, can reduce the costs and time required to manage threats and return ecosystems to a desirable development pathway.

State and transition models are used to quantify and better manage the risks of problems arising. The models also identify when ecosystem development is on a desired trajectory, helping mining companies to meet regulatory requirements around closure sooner, leading to a greater likelihood of successful mine closure.

Transitioning communities

Every phase of a mine’s life brings new opportunities and challenges to different sectors of society.

The swings and roundabouts of a mining operation through the booms and busts can have diverse impacts on different sectors of the surrounding populations, said Dr Tom Measham, a CSIRO principal research scientist focused on industry and how regional communities and economies are affected by them.

“During mine exploration and operations there can be positive benefits and impacts to regional communities, such as increased employment, income, and skills,” he said

The ripple effects of higher house prices, new infrastructure, and investment in new services are great for those in a job, with a house, or in business. But negative impacts can occur for those struggling to pay rent or working in a competitive field, or those who can’t get or keep a job.

When mines close, adapting and transitioning is no less complicated. What’s more, no two communities face the same roadmap of ups and downs.

“Some regions have diversified economies and have multiple options,” said Dr Measham. “Others are more dependent on mining and have fewer options.”

To assist regional communities once reliant on mining to forge new paths or adjust to new technologies, it’s vital for authorities to remain transparent and work closely with the regional community as early as possible.

“A key factor is planning ahead – those regions which take steps to plan and prepare during the life-of-mine will find it easier to navigate to a post-mining future,” he said.

The CRC TiME will support both communities and companies to map options based on the values, strengths and circumstances of each region, solving the challenges that mining will continue to face in a rapidly changing world.

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