Why is so little being spent on post-mining rehabilitation?

Western Australia collected $12.1 billion in mining royalties last financial year but spent just $683,000 on mine site rehabilitation. So what’s going on?

Western Australia collected $12.1 billion in mining royalties last financial year but spent just $683,000 on mine site rehabilitation.

That’s despite nearly $220 million sitting in the Mining Rehabilitation Fund (MRF) set up by the State Government (and funded by mining companies) specifically to rehabilitate abandoned and closed mines by restoring flora and fauna and making the mines safer.

The lack of action on WA’s abandoned mines was highlighted in a report by the ABC last month, following questions raised by Dundas Shire chief executive Peter Fitchat, who said the amount raised by the MRF and the amount actually spent on rehabilitation did not add up. The WA Government had spent just $312,000 in the 2019-20 financial year.

There are 190,000 abandoned mining features in WA, like mine shafts and open pits, including many in the Shire of Dundas, which takes in Norseman, Balladonia, Caiguna, Cocklebiddy and Eucla, in the state’s far south-east. There are an estimated 60,000 abandoned mines across the country.

“It appears as long as you (mining companies) pay into the fund, then the rehab doesn’t have to happen,” Fitchat told the ABC.

Please won’t somebody think of the abandoned mines?

In response, WA’s Mines Minister Bill Johnston said: “The rehab fund is not aimed at solving the problem of historically abandoned mines. Its main purpose is an insurance scheme against future abandoned mines.”

“We are using some of that money from the interest that’s earned on the fund to do some work on the most urgent rehab and we are examining how we could use some of the annual contributions towards that as well.”

He told the ABC that $4 million from the MRF had been allocated to priority projects this year but did not give specifics.

What is the Mine Rehabilitation Fund?

In WA all tenement holders operating under the Mining Act 1978 (with some exceptions) are required to report disturbance data and contribute to the MRF annually. Tenements that have a rehabilitation liability estimate at or below a $50,000 threshold must report disturbance but aren’t required to pay into the fund.

The money in the fund is available to rehabilitate abandoned mines across the State in circumstances where the tenement holder or operator has failed to meet rehabilitation obligations and efforts to recover funds from the holder or operator have been unsuccessful.

Which has led WA to a situation where there’s the best part of a quarter of a billion dollars sitting in a Government bank account, paid for by mining companies for the purpose of rehabilitating potentially dangerous abandoned mine sites, and less of it is being spent each year than it would cost to buy an average suburban house in Perth.

Rehabilitating mines in Western Australia

Yet we know how to rehabilitate mines, and brilliant work is being done. The Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute, for example, is an independent group backed by the major WA universities, the CSIRO, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy, the WA Department of Mines, BHP and others. As part of its work, it has developed a program to support progressive rehabilitation and the development of ecologically resilient post-mining landscapes. Its solutions are designed to be cost-effective and scalable.

The MRF’s own annual report for 2020-21 indicates the area of land under rehabilitation (that is, where rehabilitation is in progress) was essentially unchanged from the previous financial year, at just under 41,890 hectares.

“For the same period the area of active disturbance increased by approximately 9000 hectares to 156,563 hectares,” the report says. “Land under rehabilitation therefore represented 21% of all disturbed land and 17% of the area of active disturbance. These results suggest that, while the area under rehabilitation continues to increase, it is no longer keeping pace with the increase in overall mining activity year-on-year.”

Even that conclusion is generous, given the increase in land under rehabilitation between 2019-20 and 2020-21 was 0.8%.

Which West Australian mine sites are being rehabilitated?

So, where are the rehabilitation sites that received attention totalling $683,000 last financial year?

A further $22,000 was spent on cultural heritage mapping.

The MRF suggests the level of spending in 2020-21 was lower than anticipated because of challenges caused by Covid-19 and low interest rates.

“Historic low interest rate levels have resulted in a reassessment of current projects, with projects funded from MRF interest having been revised and in some cases put on hold,” the report says. “While interest rates remain below 1.5% (we) will continue to prioritise the higher risk projects…”

What about the rehabilitation of mines operating now?

In 2019 the WA Government introduced a guide for mine site rehabilitation which was backed by funding from mining companies (including BHP, Rio Tinto and Roy Hill).

The guidance outlined environmental standards that would be used to decide whether rehabilitation had been successful. Mining companies were advised to prepare sufficient investment terms of both financial and staff resources to account for rehabilitation and closure, right from the start of any mining project, instead of trying to deal with it at the end of the mine’s life.

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Dan Hatch
Mining People International