Do you know how to relinquish a mine site in Western Australia? Part 1

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Part 1 - Do you know how to relinquish a mine site in Western Australia? 

If your answer was no – don’t worry, you are not alone.

In Western Australia, relinquishment is defined as “A state when agreed completion criteria have been met, government “sign-off” achieved, all obligations under the Mining Act 1978 removed, and the proponent has been released from all forms of security, and responsibility has been accepted by the next land user or manager” (DMP/EPA 2015). To date, there is only one site within the state that has been relinquished – Bottle Creek Gold Project in 2001 (DITR 2006). And the story isn’t much different in the rest of Australia and other parts of the world.

Prior to the 1960s, most mining jurisdictions gave little consideration to the post-operations phase of mining activities, including site decommissioning, landscape reclamation and ecosystem rehabilitation, or what is now termed “mine closure” (Clark and Clark 2005). Limited mine closure activities took place, and mine sites were often abandoned with negative consequences for the surrounding environment (Holmes et al 2015). In Western Australia alone, 88,705 abandoned sites were recorded in the Department of Industry and Resources (now Department of Mines and Petroleum) field inventory completed in 2003 (GSWA 2012).

However, with increasing awareness of the environmental risks associated with inadequate mine closure, planning for closure has become a central component of mining projects. In most major mining jurisdictions:

  • Mine closure plans are now required before mining commences and are updated at regular intervals throughout the mine life. 
  • Financial assurances for closure activities are typically required to help ensure that adequate funds are available for the closure costs. 
  • Companies are expected to actively engage stakeholders throughout the process to help ensure that community needs are met and positive environmental and social legacies are achieved (Holmes et al 2015).

Despite these important advances, mine closure and relinquishment remains a challenge in nearly every mining jurisdiction in the world, as it is an amorphous concept with no defined end in many instances (Holmes et al 2015). The lack of a defined end could lead to mining companies managing sites in perpetuity or, even worse, the responsibility of managing site rehabilitation and closure activities could fall to the government should a company dissolve (as recently occurred at Ellendale diamond mine in Western Australia) .

In Western Australia, the Department of Mines and Petroleum have implemented a number of environmental reforms relating to mine closure, including:

  • Improving the planning arrangements for mine closure – all mine sites under the Mining Act 1978 now require a Mine Closure Plan 
  • Establishing financial assurance for when mine sites are abandoned through the establishment of the Mining Rehabilitation Fund Act 2012 
  • Developing policy and information material for managing and rehabilitating mine sites in the event they are abandoned (DMP 2015).

However, even after the introduction of the Guidelines for Preparation of Mine Closure Plans and the Mining Rehabilitation Fund (MRF) there is still no documented process for relinquishment of mine sites in Western Australia. This potentially results in a lose-lose situation for mining companies, the government and also for the community. The reality is that most mining companies will not want to carry closed mine sites on their books forever. And if governments want to have control over the terms under which mine sites are relinquished, then they need to have governance systems, policies and procedures in place to regulate how relinquishment will take place.

So after a mining company has decommissioned and rehabilitated a mine site, monitored it for years and met its completion criteria what does it do? This is an area where we may have some lessons to learn from Canada. The Canadians have developed three different approaches for dealing with mine closure and relinquishment:

  • A five-step process for determining is a site can be returned to the government
  • A set of standardised completion criteria
  • An Institutional Control Program that defines the conditions under which the government will accept custodial responsibility for mines and provide long-term stewardship of each site.

Stay tuned for the following articles in this series where Katina De Sousa (Astron’s Principal Scientist – Rehabilitation) summarises the key components, strengths and weaknesses of each of these approaches and assesses whether they are appropriate for implementation in Western Australia.


References:

Clark A and Clark JC 2005, An international overview of legal frameworks for mine closure, Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, Eugene, USA.

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

Department of Industry Tourism and Resources (DITR) 2006, Leading Practice Sustainable Development Program for the Mining Industry - Mine Closure and Completion.

Geological Survey of Western Australia (GSWA) 2012, Inventory of abandoned mine sites: progress 1999-2011, Department of Industry and Resources, Perth.

Holmes, R, Flynn, M and Thorpe, MB 2015, ‘A framework for standardised, performance-based completion criteria for mine closure and mine site relinquishment’, Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Mine Closure, Vancouver, Canada, 2015, InfoMine, pp. 121-130.

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