Rehabilitating Australia’s Mine Pits: The Challenge of Dealing with Massive Voids Left Behind

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As mining companies across Australia continue to extract valuable resources from the earth, the dilemma of rehabilitating the gaping holes left behind is becoming increasingly pressing. 

The issue is particularly pertinent in Victoria, where the Hazelwood mine rehabilitation project has been described as an “experiment” due to the scale and complexity of the task.

The Hazelwood coal mine, which operated for over 60 years, was decommissioned in 2017. Its closure left behind a void of over 1,000 hectares, making it the largest mine rehabilitation project in the state’s history. 

The rehabilitation process involves filling the void with over 60 million cubic metres of material, including topsoil and clay, and establishing vegetation to prevent erosion and improve soil health.

However, the project has faced numerous challenges, including community concerns about potential health risks from airborne particles and water contamination, as well as the sheer scale of the task. The project is expected to take up to 30 years to complete and cost over $400 million.

The issue of mine rehabilitation is not unique to Australia, and cautionary tales abound. The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, warns of inadequate mine rehabilitation’s environmental and health risks. 

Once an open-pit copper mine, the pit is now filled with over 50 billion gallons of acidic water and heavy metals, posing a severe threat to nearby ecosystems and human health. In 2016, 3000 snow geese were killed due to the toxic chemical it emits.

“All the closed mines will pose a danger; there is always a risk,” said Mine Lakes Consulting director Dr Cherie McCullough.

In Australia, mine rehabilitation is governed by a complex web of regulations, including state and federal laws and regulations specific to individual mines. However, there is growing concern that these regulations may not be sufficient to address the long-term environmental and health risks associated with mine rehabilitation.

As mining companies continue to extract valuable resources from the earth, the question of what to do with the massive voids left behind still needs to be answered. The issue of mine rehabilitation is complex and multifaceted, requiring a comprehensive approach that considers the unique challenges posed by each mine. 

David McGavin is an environmental expert who has worked on projects to restore old mines in Queensland, Australia. He says that to get rid of 1 million cubic meters of ash left over from mining; they would need to create a new landfill site. This means finding a new place to dump the ash, which would require a lot of trucks to transport it. However, people in the state are already worried about soil that might be contaminated, so it could be challenging to find a place to put the ash without causing further concerns.

Only through careful planning, community engagement, and effective regulation can we ensure that the legacy of Australia’s mining industry is one of responsible and sustainable resource extraction.

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