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19 April 2022 10 min read

"We've had a mining boom over the past 30 years, and if an average mine life is between 10 and 30 years, it's fair to assume that we’re going to see a mine-closure ‘boom’ off the back of that," says Dr Guy Boggs, CEO of the Cooperative Research Centre for Transformations in Mining Economies (CRC TiME), which launched in July 2020.

Open pit near Paraburdoo. ©  Professor Fiona Haslam-McKenzie

Tracking mine closures in Australia is dynamic, "as we’d expect, because mining evolves in line with both resource value and the technology we have to extract it," says Dr Boggs. The Minerals Council of Australia estimates [PDF · 12.5MB] that there could be as many as 65,000 abandoned or former mine sites in Australia today.

"Mining companies always highlight their environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials, but there are of course tension points around their operations, and one of the most obvious ones is how a mine is closed," says Dr Boggs. "One of the strongest indicators of whether a mine has succeeded on its ESG goals is whether the business leaves a positive social, environmental and economic legacy when it ceases operation, and our CRC is focused on that."

Building a plan to make mine closures a positive transition

"We're at the start of the curve. With all the mines that will close in the next five, 10, 20 years, it's a good time for Australia to prepare for that, and also to find ways to optimise it, because there are plenty of sources of value."

After 18 months of foundational work, with 22 projects to "set the scene", says Dr Boggs, "now we’re working on our next phase of project development".

Many regional communities have multiple mines and several companies operating in the area, on which they’ve relied for employment, procurement and general stimulation of the local economy. In such situations, when one mine is working towards closure, "it's not just influenced by what that company wants to do, but also by what the neighbouring miners are planning", says Dr Boggs.

"It's critical for mining companies to work with each other and the communities to turn mine closures into regional transitions, which requires open conversations between all the stakeholders. The fact that we were able to get the CRC TiME up and running shows that mining companies understand this."

Sixteen mining and energy companies and related agencies, and 21 METS companies are among the partners in the CRC TiME, including all the majors.

"Research is critical – it's the nitty gritty," says Dr Boggs, who counts 17 research bodies, including CSIRO, as partners in the CRC. "We need to establish what knowledge we need to inform this regional planning. Companies recognise they have to be more open and transparent to demonstrate their ESG commitments to shareholders and investors, and show that they are dealing with these complex closing challenges. Our job is to work with them to help them."

CSIRO is helping to advance research for beneficial mine closures

"We invested in CRC TiME because it fits CSIRO's mission to support Australian industry to be sustainable, environmentally and socially, as well as economically," says Dr Jason Kirby, CSIRO's Lead in the CRC TiME and Principal Research Scientist in CSIRO's Land and Water business unit.

The CRC TiME "puts mine closure as a cornerstone of the industry, creating enduring value and benefits to all Australians", says Dr Kirby. "A mine typically operates for a long time, and there needs to be a plan in place for what happens afterwards. CSIRO Land and Water is interested in the environmental aspects, the social aspects and supporting industry and regions to be able to manage that transition to a post mining future better."

Lake Kepwari is a prime example of how rehabilitating a mine site is more than just planting trees. It demonstrates how cooperation between mining companies, the local community and government ensures mine closure and rehabilitation can have a positive environmental, social and economic impact well into the future.

Dr Kirby leads Data Integration, Forecasting and Scale, one of the CRC's four major programs, that has regions in transition at the heart of the CRC. "Jason’s program is looking at the cumulative impact of mining and the regional planning aspect," says Dr Boggs. "Our ability to forecast risks and challenges is really important – the better we do that, the better we can help government, industry and communities make decisions for the future today."

There's overlap between the program areas, says Dr Kirby, data integration and analytics can drive innovation and research, help predict and forecast economic, social and environmental outcomes, and enable better decision making and planning for closure. His program has three major initiatives under way.

"One is a large project looking at management of pit lakes in Australia with the aim of assessing their risks and potential benefits and opportunities." The project team is researching not only how to reduce the risks of managing pit lakes post a mine’s closure, but whether there is potential to turn the pit lake into something of value, for the community and region.

The initiative to assess cumulative regional impact "is about understanding that a mine doesn't operate, or close, in isolation", he says. "We need to understand the impact of other industries and other stakeholders within a region for better decision making and planning."

The third initiative is to develop ecological forecasting tools to enable climate-resilient mine-site rehabilitation. "Climate change presents a risk to effectively achieving mine closure," says Dr Kirby "Tools are needed to inform robust, evidence-based rehabilitation strategies ensuring a climate resilient post-mining ecosystem and to provide confidence that closure criteria can be achieved in the short and long-term."

Dr Kirby says taking into account how mine closures impact Traditional Owners is another vital aspect for this CRC. There has already been a foundation project that examined how CRC TiME should actively engage with Indigenous voices to incorporate their values, knowledge, and perspectives. This falls under Dr Kirby’s program. "First Nations leadership will help guide CRC strategic directions and through co-developed  projects to deliver impact for communities following mine closure," he says.

Overall, Dr Kirby and his colleagues are focused on what happens "to this beautiful landscape and communities once we have finished mining there".

Taking space, place, people and time into consideration

"People have a strong cultural sense of attachment to place, so we are looking at space, place, people and time for these regions in transition," says Professor Fiona Haslam-McKenzie, leader of the Regional Economic Development program for the CRC and Co-Director for the Centre for Regional Development at the University of Western Australia.

"We are working to find out how best to move people, perhaps not happily but willingly, through the process of mine closures, and help work out what to do with assets left over from mining activities in the next phase of the life of this land," she says.

Professor Haslam-McKenzie says one problem is that the domino effect of a mine closure on the region is not properly examined. "How do the plans you have for this landform or this place impact on the broader community or region?"

Rehabilitation at Premier Coal mine, Collie Western Australia

She gives the example that developing pit lakes for water-skiing or other recreational or tourism use in one region might have a negative knock-on impact in an adjoining region with a vibrant tourism market for similar activities. "When we are considering this kind of repurposing, we need to consider the economic future at a larger regional scale. You might be cutting someone else's lunch, which is why it's important to plan on a regional scale to confront those complex questions."

Despite the difficulty of dealing with myriad considerations, Professor Haslam-McKenzie is optimistic that the CRC work will achieve truly positive results for communities. She points to the pre-CRC TiME example of the Victorian country town of Stawell, where the closed gold mine has been spectacularly repurposed to become the Stawell Underground Physics Lab, the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

She worked on foundational research for the CRC with Professor Andrew Beer from the University of South Australia. "Very few places in Australia have repurposed closed mines, but we found a handful of examples where there has been successful repurposing or co-alignment," she says. "It was great finding these good news stories."

Repurposing closed mines for tourism ventures will work in a few specific places, but Professor Haslam-McKenzie cautions that for many remote regions, such as the Pilbara, those ideas would not work for "a whole range of reasons, including accessibility and services". She says closure solutions need to be specifically targeted for particular places to "find realistic alternatives, which also use the skills of the people who are left in these areas when the mines are gone".

Stawell is one of her favourite examples, but the research work authored by Professor Beer for the 'Post-mining Land Uses' project for her CRC program found several others, including a wetland habitat on the Schwenke's Dam site in Greenbushes, WA, creating a recreational facility, Lake Kepwari, near Collie, WA, and a planned pumped-hydro project in the old Fassifern coal mine near Newcastle, NSW.

Professor Haslam-McKenzie also points to the WA government's $100 million investment to support the transition of the coal-mining region of Collie, including sponsoring established businesses to set up in the town. "When you go to Collie now, they’re really quite excited about the future of their town because they're being redeployed into other jobs," she says. "These are people who've been mining for generations."

Closure plans are essential to ESG goals for miners

BHP was an early advocate for the CRC TiME and has been a partner from day one. "We’re one of the biggest contributors to the CRC and our people are active in various projects, as well as review committees and steering committees," says Kim Ferguson, Practice Lead – Global Closure at BHP's Resource Centre for Excellence.

BHP has offered sites for testing and piloting of various innovations aimed at improving the outcomes of mine closure on a range of fronts, including environmental and safety.

"The breadth of transformation in mining economies is significant," Ms Ferguson says. "The CRC has a lot of projects looking at closure from an environmental perspective, with a lens of how closure can add value for the community, including research into how to leave the land and associated natural resources suitable for repurposing into something that can add value to the economics of the community post mining. We also need to make sure we are looking at collaborative economic transformation options that are separate from the mine site."

Collie, a coal-mining town south of Perth since the early 1900s, is turning to tourism as one way to future-proof its post-mining economy. Local operators claim the striking artwork on Wellington Dam is the largest dam mural in the world, and tourism numbers have boomed in the past year.

Ms Ferguson reminds us that mining is, and will remain, a vital industry. "We're a supply-demand industry, and demand for future-facing commodities is forecast to grow for decades to come," she says. "When people buy a phone, solar panels, EVs, medical devices, they are driving demand for minerals such as copper and nickel. If you take mining away, our modern way of life and pathway to global decarbonisation is not possible."

ESG goals are front of mind for mining companies, and closure is a vital aspect of that. "There is increasing awareness globally that closure is not a problem you solve at the end of a mine's life, it's a fundamental part of mine design, and of operational decisions," says Ms Ferguson.

"Right from the very beginning, we need to be making informed decisions that consider the long-term risks and opportunities," she says. "We need to have a long-term view for the full life-cycle of our sites. We are not the first people using this land, and we won't be the last. As an industry, we need to be responsible and respectful temporary stewards of the land."

Mine closure plans need to be just as agile as the operations

Ms Ferguson says not only must closure be embedded into the operational plan, it must be adapted and reported on regularly. "Mining is a dynamic industry, constantly subject to market forces, supply and demand trends, regulatory changes and stakeholder expectations."

So it goes that miners must be prepared to shift their closure plans. "We must embed processes of reviewing and checking that it's still the right closure plan, and make sure that we keep up with expectations, regulations and making the most of emerging technology," she says. "Part of my role as Practice Lead is to keep up with current and emerging risks, including ESG initiatives, knowing what's important to our investors and stakeholders, and ensuring all those considerations are put into our closure plans."

The CRC TiME has such an impressive "breadth of participation that we can really kick some goals", says Ms Ferguson. "The CRC is bringing up the capability and the capacity of all of the participants at the same time. With us all working together towards the same goal, anything's possible."

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