Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

When Gold Loses Its Glitter

By Denise Goldsworthy

The Gold Rush left behind thousands of mines that remain toxic to the environment. The mining sector needs to develop a national abandoned mine initiative to regain public trust.

Tens of thousands of forgotten mines puncture Australia, some even dating back to the Gold Rush. Some of these abandoned mines have become toxic to the environment, eroding the public’s trust in miners and regulators.

Unrehabilitated legacy mines number more than 50,000, including structures like shafts and tailing dams. While some are now protected as historically significant, others capture rainfall in pit voids and can leak acidic water into the ecosystem.

Sulphide minerals are one of the major geological culprits. When they lie near the surface of the ground, they naturally oxidise and leech acid.

Abandoned mines often come from a time when mining practices were less scrutinised. They have no clear owner, with many found on private land. Who takes care of the clean-up is legally and logistically murky. Thankfully, additions to this legacy are now uncommon.

One of the facts of life is that the profitability of mines swings significantly from year to year. Addressing environmental impacts is often left to the good years or close to the end of a mine operation’s life.

Combined with poor transparency, this means that legacy mines are used by anti-mining activists as examples of why the current environmental approval systems for mines can’t be relied on, so they argue that the only reliable alternative is no mining at all.

It’s time for the mining sector and the government to take responsibility for the past and address these legacy mines proactively. They have an opportunity to link them to new technologies and transparent assessment processes.

For better mining practices to be achieved, mining companies, METS companies (mining equipment, technology and services), researchers and regulators need to change the way they work together.

First, they must bring old documents and legislation up to date. The 7-year-old document, Strategic Framework for Managing Abandoned Mines in the Minerals Industry, and the almost 20-year-old Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 are a start.

A national abandoned mine initiative must be established to review remediation barriers, identify priority sites and support states and territories. This process can support new research and become the basis for a transparent national database that enables the cumulative assessment of multiple sites within an ecosystem.

Once these solutions have gained momentum, they will not only restore the local environment and support applied research but also have the potential to employ regional workers and rebuild community confidence in the industry.

But it isn’t just legacy mines that need a makeover. The current state of mining practices can be improved to ensure that the future of Australia’s mines is a sustainable one.

When the impacts are addressed, the risk management is too simplistic, often stopping at the site boundary and rarely considering the cumulative impacts of multiple mines within a single ecosystem. And it has a lot to do with data.

There is a lack of accessible data available to support informed decision-making about ecological risks. This prevents a robust scientific assessment of environmental risks at a whole-of-ecosystem scale – risks that are largely ignored because it’s too difficult to deal with the politics of the impact of the first mine versus the impact of the tenth mine.

What can we do about it?

Environmental risks can be better assessed and managed with research into open and user-friendly geographical information systems. Development of similar tools are being led by Geoscience Australia and state geological survey departments.

Exposing regulators to the latest technology through an abandoned mine initiative will also increase the regulators’ capacity to apply leading scientific knowledge to their decision-making and audits of environmental impact statements.

Taking on these actions won’t only keep Australia’s environment healthy, but it will begin to improve the mining industry’s reputation.

A 2014 CSIRO study suggested that while Australians understood the necessity of mining, they didn’t trust the sector to do the right thing. But with publicly available data, more accountability of the sector and better communication tools for easy-to-read snapshots of progress, the mining sector can show the public that they’re trustworthy, and indeed necessary.

Australia has both the resources and expertise to become a world leader in sustainable mining if researchers and regulators work together, bringing new innovative technology to the drawing board.

Surely boosting our applied scientific capabilities in an area as critical to the national economy as mining is at the forefront of the government’s innovation agenda?

Denise Goldsworthy is the Owner and Managing Principal of Alternate Futures Pty Ltd.