Do You Know How to Relinquish a Mine in Western Australia? Part 4

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Part 4 - Post-Relinquishment Site Management

Relinquishment of mine sites and management of any ongoing monitoring and maintenance activities is an issue that has not yet been resolved in Western Australia. There is currently no documented process for relinquishment of mine sites and no program in place for maintaining sites after they have been relinquished. The situation is similar in the rest of Australia and other parts of the world.

An exception to this is the Province of Saskatchewan which has developed a formal Institutional Control Program (ICP) that defines the conditions under which it will accept custodial responsibility for mine sites and provide long-term stewardship of each site (Hovdebo et al 2015). The Saskatchewan program even deals with the international obligations related to uranium mines and since its inception has accepted responsibility for one gold mine/mill and five uranium mine sites.

So how does the Saskatchewan model work and could it be a starting point for establishing a process for relinquishing mine sites in Western Australia? In the fourth article of this five part series, Katina De Sousa (Astron’s Principal Scientist – Rehabilitation) summarises the key components of the Saskatchewan model, its strengths and weaknesses and how it ties in with the Western Australia regulatory setting and mine closure practice in the region.

Key Components

The ICP documents:

  1. The Rules – The conditions under which the Government of Saskatchewan will accept responsibility for land impacted by mining that requires long-term monitoring and, in certain circumstances, maintenance. 
  2. The Funding – Funding mechanisms to cover costs associated with the monitoring and maintenance of relinquished sites. The site holder must contribute funds of sufficient value to generate sufficient revenue to pay for future monitoring and maintenance costs in perpetuity and the costs of future unforeseen events.
  3. The Implementation – The process for responsibility to be vested in a government department for implementation of required monitoring and maintenance activities on relinquished sites.

The Saskatchewan ICP has strengths and critical issues that need to be dealt with for successful implementation:

Strengths

  • Clearly documents the process to be followed for relinquishment of a mine site which provides certainty for mining companies.
  • Provides a secure, protected place for funds and an implementation process for long term management of relinquished sites.
  • Reduces the risk of mine sites being abandoned and the government becoming liable for rehabilitation liabilities.

Critical Issues

  • To be implemented in most jurisdictions, including Western Australia, will require changes in regulations and the political resolve for the Government to accept responsibility for relinquished mines. 
  • Perception that the mining industry is avoiding is obligations by passing responsibility for ongoing site monitoring and maintenance to the Government (or another third party). 
  • Risk that funds are not adequate or not managed properly to provide for the identified ongoing monitoring and maintenance.

So is this the way Western Australia needs to go?

I think yes – because mine companies need to know the process to follow and what to plan for in order to relinquish a site after they achieve completion criteria that have been set in consultation with relevant stakeholders.

Some of the primary requirements of the ICP are already covered by legislation or being undertaken by some companies. In Western Australia, determining long-term monitoring and maintenance requirements and costs is not new to mining companies as all Mine Closure Plans must (DMP/EPA 2015):

  • identify and include appropriate detail on closure performance monitoring and maintenance framework during progressive rehabilitation and post-closure 
  • include maintenance, monitoring and auditing programs (including the post-closure phase) in financial provisioning for closure.

Some mining companies are also taking the extra step and setting up trust funds to be administered by independent third parties for ongoing monitoring and maintenance activities in the future. For example, Waihi Gold in New Zealand has established a charitable trust (known as the Martha Trust) that will manage the tailings storage facilities and water treatment plant and take title of the land upon which they stand once closure of the site is complete. The Trust will be responsible for maintaining the land and facilities in the long term, and will carry our all necessary monitoring and maintenance. The mining company will hand over a sum of money and the interest generated from that money will allow the Trust to manage, monitor and maintain the land and provide the necessary insurance cover.

So from the mining companies’ point of view, many of the requirements of the ICP are already in place. Formalising these processes should result in more consistent and better outcomes if good guidance is provided and standards set.

Placing responsibility for managing mine sites post-relinquishment in one recognised government department should also result in better outcomes than the current process of mine sites negotiating with stakeholders such as local governments and land holders as to who will be responsible for managing the post-relinquishment activities and funds. Providing a secure, protected place for funds should also ensure that they are available in the long term – when they will be required – without placing a burden on future generations. This should be an improvement to the current situation where funds may not be adequately protected and are administered by people that, although they may have the best intentions, may not be familiar with the risks and requirements associated with mining.

There are a lot of “shoulds” in the preceding paragraph – this is a situation where clear guidance and control by the government should (there we go again) result in improved outcomes. However, the important thing is that the guidance and control need to be good. Otherwise we could end up with a situation where:

  • Inadequate funds are put away for future requirements resulting in a burden on future generations.
  • Funds are not adequately separated from general state revenue or are expended elsewhere leading to cost liabilities for mining companies in the future after having made initial deposits in good faith. 
  • Funds are not well managed (in terms of investment or for undertaking activities) which leads to inadequate funding for the identified ongoing monitoring and maintenance of relinquished sites.

Concluding Comments

In Western Australia, and most places in the world, the mining industry, government and other stakeholders require a well-defined relinquishment process which documents the conditions under which a site can be relinquished and the steps to follow. The Saskatchewan model fits well with the regulatory regime already in place in Western Australia and appears to be working. This makes it a great basis for the development of a relinquishment process for the State – and for other regions looking to improve the management of sites post-closure.

If you are interested in how the Saskatchewan model operates stay tuned for the following article which provides more detail on the key components.

 

References:

Charette, T and Poscente M 2012, Criteria and indicators framework for oil sands mine reclamation certification, Cumulative Environment Management Association, Edmonton, Canada.

Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP) and Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) 2015, Guidelines for Preparing Mine Closure Plans.

Holmes, R, Flynn, MF and Thorpe, MB 2015, A framework for standardises, performance-based completion criteria for mine closure and mine site relinquishment, Mine Closure 2015, pp. 121-130.

Hovdebo, DG, Cunningham, KE, Kristoff, DM and Webster, MS 2015, ‘Post-closure stewardship of mine sites: institutional control in Saskatchewan – a case history’, Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Mine Closure, Vancouver, Canada, 2015, InfoMine, pp. 23-36.

Saskatchewan Government 2006, The Reclaimed Industrial Sites Act Chapter R-4.21 of The Statutes of Saskatchewan, 2006 (http://www.qp.gov.sk.ca/documents/english/Statutes/Statutes/R4-21.pdf).

Saskatchewan Government 2007, The Reclaimed Industrial Sites Regulations Chapter R-4.21 Reg 1 (http://www.qp.gov.sk.ca/documents/english/Regulations/Regulations/R4-21r1.pdf)

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