Rehabilitation vs restoration
The words rehabilitation and restoration are interchangeable when discussing the process of repairing ecological damage caused by mining. However, the National Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration in Australia (Standards Reference Group SERA 2016) have clear, and differing, definitions for the two. Understanding the differences is important to help understand the legal requirements for mine site rehabilitation.
Restoration is the aim to re-establish the ecosystem that existed prior to the beginning of mining operations. This can be a very difficult, costly, and time-intensive goal. Mining operations can drastically change the terrain of a location diverting waterways, creating or leveling hills, and changing the composition of the topsoil are just some of the changes that are common from standard mining practices that can all have a large impact on re-establishing the previous eco-system. Ecosystems often rely on animal and birdlife to maintain their balance, unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee the wildlife will return to the location once the ecosystem grows back. This could result in the ecosystem developing in a different direction than the previous ecosystem.
Rehabilitation is the establishment of a sustainable ecosystem or preparation for alternative use. Where restoration aims to recreate the previous existing ecosystem rehabilitation often creates a new one. What was once woodland could easily become croplands, plantations, or grazing land. Alternatively, the goal of a project can be a new ecosystem which creates a habitat for certain wildlife species. In some cases, the rehabilitated land can become a golf course, housing subdivisions, or even a sports field. Rehabilitation offers many more options than restoration, allowing for more flexibility in the post-mining use of the land.
Land rehabilitation is a legal requirement for mine sites. Until rehabilitation is complete, the mining company is still financially liable for the land. Depending on the intended use of land after mining, requirements for what is considered total rehabilitation may vary a lot. Additionally, if you can’t demonstrate commitment to land-use stewardship, it is increasingly difficult to achieve permission for future mining operations.
A strong commitment to rehabilitation also has positive results on community acceptance of mining operations. Most people have little knowledge of mining practices, but many have heard the dangers of environmental damage from mining operations. A clear rehabilitation plan can help allay fears of environmental damage amongst the community and build confidence in the project.
Progressive rehabilitation involves treatment while the site is still in operation. Expired mines or mines that have no future prospects can receive rehabilitation while operations continue elsewhere. This has a number of benefits however it can become an issue if plans change and an already rehabilitated location needs to be used again. Rehabilitation on a smaller scale prior to the closure of the mine site can benefit in the long term by presenting any challenges that may arise can be dealt with on a smaller scale first and solved prior to the larger rehabilitation of the full site. Due to this, progressive rehabilitation has the potential to save both time and money for the overall rehabilitation project. Additionally ongoing rehabilitation provides an obvious example of the company’s commitment to sustainable practices and encourages continued community support.
Once operations on the mine site have come to an end the focus will shift to full-scale rehabilitation of the site. This period can potentially last years depending on the end goal for the land. The first step is to prepare the land, level out waste dumps and cover landfill with topsoil. In preparation for revegetation, open pits should close and have a fence around them for safety. Once the land is prepared and revegetation has begun ongoing care and maintenance is often required until the new ecosystem reaches a self-sustaining level.
The end goal for rehabilitation is to reach the relinquishment stage. Achieving complete relinquishment after mine closure will see all security bonds returned and no ongoing liabilities in relation to the mine site. In Australia, less than 30 mines have ever achieved complete relinquishment. With so many challenges, regulations, and laws surrounding rehabilitation it can be a very complex process. To ensure long term success, advice from a qualified expert before the planning phase of any rehabilitation project is a good idea. An early mistake could have long-lasting repercussions. Erizon are national experts on mine site rehabilitation and should be your first call for any rehabilitation projects.