Closure for Whom? When 10,000 Years Isn’t Enough

PhD researcher Gemma Viney reflects on the September 26 event Mining Legacies, which brought together a panel of experts in collaboration with the Mineral Policy Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation to address whether we will ever be able to truly ‘close’ a mine, and the dangers of the mining giants that are increasingly getting away with shirking their rehabilitation responsibilities.

Image by Dion Beetson, via Unsplash

“They didn’t want to talk about the new mine, they wanted to talk about the trauma’s associated with the old mine… 40 years it had been closed, but the trauma and the memories of being disrespected, without consent sought and with traditional lands degraded, it was like it had happened yesterday for them… While that mine may have been technically closed, they had no closure.”

Dr Rebecca Lawrence, on working with a Swedish Sami community regarding the re-opening of an old mine.

On September 26, the Sydney Environment Institute, in partnership with the Mineral Policy Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation, brought together a panel of experts to challenge Australia’s mining legacies, and the very concept of mining closure. The event’s chair Charles Roche (Minerals Policy Institute & Murdoch University) laid out the context for this conversation: between 1981 and 2005, a study of 1000 Australian mine sites showed that 75% were closed either prematurely, or in an unplanned way.

What does this mean for a country that, as Roche put it, is at this stage is essentially just an oversized mining town? With 50,000 legacy mines in Australia, how can we understand and improve mine closure practices when the norm is so far from what regulation promises? And what needs to be considered in the definition of proper, effective mine closure to ensure that all of the resulting impacts are recognised, appropriately acknowledged and accommodated at the outset of the planning phase?

Closure for whom?

Dr Rebecca Lawrence, Sydney Environment Institute, opened the discussion by bringing front and centre the question of what closure means for communities. Drawing on her experience with Sami reindeer herding communities in Sweden, Lawrence illustrated how within technical conversations about policy and environmental protections it can be easy to lose sight of the lived experiences of harm affiliated with both the physical and social impacts of improper mine closure. “When we think about mining closure and mine rehabilitation,” Lawrence says, “we need to think about not only rehabilitating the environment, but how to remediate and rehabilitate relationships, and that’s particularly pertinent for indigenous people”. For affected communities, and indigenous communities in particular, the traumas associated with the disempowerment and dispossession that results from the development of mine sites does not simply evaporate once production ceases.

“When we think about mining closure and mine rehabilitation, we need to think about not only rehabilitating the environment, but how to remediate and rehabilitate relationships, and that’s particularly pertinent for indigenous people.”

– Dr Rebecca Lawrence

‘Rip, ship, underperform, apologise and repeat’

Dave Sweeney, from the Australian Conservation Foundation, brought the conversation to redefining mining rehabilitation and closure within the context of industry. The lifecycle of a mine is front heavy, with all of the promise and excitement in the finding, identifying, extracting and exporting of the resource. Our national discourse and approach to thinking about mining however, fails once we approach the end of said lifecycle. Sweeney described the entrenched inconsistency in how industry approaches mining legacies as the absolute drive to ensure that the ‘closure’ of a mine does not ‘sterilise the resource’. The role of civil society actors in this space must thus be to empower regulators to hold mining companies, politicians and interest groups accountable to a whole of life approach to mine planning and development.

Positive legacies

As the discussion continued, Mia Pepper, from Murdoch University, responded to a prompt regarding positive legacies, and the current measures in place in Australia that can have real impacts on the routine failures of the mining industry. There are several means of mitigating the patterns of underperformance that Sweeney alluded to, the most effective of which is mining rehabilitation bonds. Pepper described the intersection of financial and reputational incentive associated with the implementation of rehabilitation bonds. Importantly however, greater attention needs to be paid to who is assessing the bonds, and how they are being monitored throughout the life of the mine. Despite being the best permanent incentive for proper and progressive mine rehabilitation, Associate Professor Gavin Mudd from RMIT described a chronic problem in the underestimation of the actual cost of rehabilitation, as the negotiation of that cost remains between the mining company and the regulator, with no measures for independent assessment.

Justice for community futures

This lead into what was an overarching point across all of the different dimensions of mining legacies, this being the need for a greater integration of community interests and representation in both the assessment and monitoring processes of mine rehabilitation. Associate Professor Mudd contextualised the need for community engagement with these processes when considering who has to live with the impact of mismanaged rehabilitation. Not only is there an injustice simply in the exclusion of communities from negotiations about mine closure, but when the targets that have been set are unattainable, unmonitored and not independently assessed, the burden of mining legacies, radiation and acid mine drainage, falls solely on the communities (see. O’Faircheallaigh & Lawrence 2019).

To put all of this into context, we can consider an example in the Kakadu Ranger Uranium mine. The closure plan here requires 10,000 years of upkeep and monitoring to ensure that the mine tailings do not leak into the surrounding area, and rehabilitation and restoration of the landscape to a level such that the mine site could one day be integrated into the nearby national park. These requirements may seem impractical, and even impossible from a financial or regulatory perspective. However, put into the context of 65,000 years of caring for country, for the Mirarr traditional owners, this is the bare minimum obligation of Rio Tinto and Energy Resources of Australia, in the long process of ‘closure’.

Mining Legacies was held on September 26, 2019, bringing together a panel of experts that aimed to challenge Australia’s current approach to managing mining legacies, embracing ethical, economic, environmental and social perspectives in an exploration of responsible mine closure.

Speakers included Dr Rebecca Lawrence (Sydney Environment Institute, Stockholm Environment Institute), Associate Professor Gavin Mudd (RMIT), Mia Pepper (Mineral Policy Institute, Australian Conservation Foundation, Murdoch University), Dave Sweeney (Australian Conservation Foundation) and Charles Roche (Minerals Policy Institute, Murdoch University).

Gemma Viney is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. She was an Honours Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute in 2017. Gemma was awarded First Class Honours for her research investigating Australian environmental justice and the coalitions forming between rural farming and Indigenous Australian communities. Gemma also received the Helen Nelson Prize for Best Honours Thesis at the 2018 School of Social and Political Sciences Prizes Ceremony.