In Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, the Hazelwood brown coal mine is closed. In the NT, the Ranger uranium mine is due to shut down in four years’ time.
They’re very different mines, but with the same problem: what to do with the landscape once the mining stops.
From Australia to the Americas, from Europe to South Africa, there are plenty of lessons to be learned.
Germany leads by example
One of the best examples of restoring a post-mining landscape comes from Europe, where uranium mining by the once feared and secret Wismut company had created a environmental tragedy.
“It was military mining … a military operation to get the first uranium for the Soviet nuclear bomb,” says Gerhard Schmidt, a senior researcher with the Oeko Institute in Germany.
“It was not very sustainable … they mined and milled the ore and put the wastes into large piles of more than 100 million tonnes, some of which are the largest in the world.”
There were about 25 mines — open cut and underground — in East Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and communist rule in Eastern Europe, the full extent of the problem was revealed.
But the Germans decided to do things properly.
They designed a 25-year, €8 billion program to clean up the mess and reinvent Wismut, providing jobs for tens of thousands of former mine workers.
From mine to valuable real estate
In America, former mining lands have become valuable real estate, for everything from solar farms to housing estates.
“Reclamation can be done in a way that makes for a very high value post-mining land use,” says Paul Robinson, a research director with the Southwest Research and Information Centre, based in New Mexico.
Mr Robinson points to the old (and once problematic) Questa mine in New Mexico as a success story.
“The company has retrofitted its mine with a reclamation plan, developed technology to reclaim very steep slopes that are a difficult problem at many mines, and installed innovative groundwater cut-off barriers to reduce acid drainage reaching streams,” he says.
But he also has concerns that higher levels of regulation around land rehabilitation is driving companies with unsustainable mining practices offshore, to less regulated markets.
What happens in poor countries?
That’s certainly true in South Africa, says Anthony Turton, a water expert and advisor to the mining industry.
Mr Turton, also a professor of environmental management at the University of the Free State, says the industry “hasn’t covered itself in too much glory” in his country.
He says there are “little green shoots of hope”, as some companies take old brownfields mining sites and turn them into stable or productive rehabilitated landscapes.
But he says pollution and health problems from a century of gold and coal mining now threaten the drinking water of Johannesburg, and South Africa’s ability to feed itself.
Almost 1.8 million people in and around Johannesburg are at “pretty much at ground zero”, he says, exposed to elevated levels of uranium and other contamination.
“I’m talking about the poorest of the poor in the case of South Africa,” he says.
“These are mostly people living in what we call squatter camps or informal settlements.
“They almost are all living within the 500-metre exclusion zone around the tailings disposal facility.
“They are almost all living on land that is undermined and is actively being undermined by these illegal miners on a daily basis.”
Next steps for Australia
Australia is also grappling with a host of environmental problems from old open pit uranium mines.
Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory and Mary Kathleen in Queensland both still require hundreds of millions of dollars of additional rehabilitation work, decades after closure.
And Australia has four uranium mines still producing yellowcake, about 30 operating iron ore mines, 40 working copper mines, 40 gold mines, 10 lead-zinc mines, around eight nickel mines and 100 productive coal mines.
Gavin Mudd, an associate professor of environmental engineering at RMIT, says Australia is getting better at managing post-mining landscapes — “but we’ve still got a long way to go”.
“The legacy is our landscapes … whether they be open cut mines, waste rock dumps and overburden dumps, basically mountains of waste, and often significantly changed ecosystems,” he says.
“The concern I always have is, have we really factored in the success of rehabilitation and our modern approaches to mining? And what are these landscapes going to look like in 50 years when they are much bigger mines?
“That’s one of the things that I always worry about, is what will be the long-term environmental outcomes in say 50 years’ time. And I guess that’s an open question.”
Australia-based Austin Maynard Architects have recently completed a luxury home in Melbourne called That House. It’s ultra modern and very sustainable, with a footprint of about half that of the surrounding houses. The home is also powered by solar energy, and features a rainwater collection system.
That House is a unique two-story home, which is made from rectangular volumes stacked on top of each other. Together they yield an interior floorspace of 2,744 sq ft (255 sq m). The main living area of the home is located on ground floor, which features two lounges, a kitchen, a dining room, a study, and a bathroom. On the first floor there are three bedrooms, a bathroom and a toilet.
A narrow hallway separates the two areas on the ground level, which is an interesting design choice, given that the hallway is an indoor/outdoor kind and leads to the back yard on one end. The rectangular volumes that make up the home are reminiscent of shipping containers, though they are larger and feature glazing on the shorter sides, which lets in a lot of natural light. Since the layout of the ground floor is very open, the designers included hinged walls at strategic places, which can be used to gain some privacy. Since the home features ample glazing, the designers also installed shading, which pulls up, giving the occupants privacy with the option of still retaining the view of the sky.
The glazing was installed with passive solar gain in mind, and to this end there are no windows on the western façade, and very few on the eastern elevations. Rainwater is collected in a large tank buried in the garden, and this water is used for irrigation as well as flushing. The home was also very well insulated, and the PV panel array takes care of most of the household’s power needs.
‘The world has now worked out how to create wealth with fossil fuels’ says Peter Newman, Professor off Sustainability from Curtin University in Perth, Australia.
‘The evidence is now here that we are decoupling GDP growth from fossil fuels, for the first time in 200 years. Not only in the developed world but also in China, India and South Africa, he said at the first African Capital Cities Sustainability Forum in Tshwane.
‘This is the good news that help world leaders prepare for the Paris talks in December, when the phasing out of fossil fuels is agreed to by all nations’, he said.
‘How is this happening?’ Newman asked.
‘Coal is being phased out because renewables are now a cheaper and more reliable investment for the future, as well as energy efficiency.’
‘Across the world we are seeing the demonstration of zero carbon buildings and neighbourhoods at low cost with hi-Ion batteries now the next revolutionary addition making renewables available 24 hours.’
‘Oil is being phased out by the reduction in ear dependence and the growth of electric transport options’ Professor Newman outlined.
‘Cities in the developed world are reversing their urban sprawl and investing in quality, fast rail systems to overcome traffic problems. Peak car use and enhanced walkable cities are now indicators of wealth,’ he said.
‘But the extraordinary shift to electric transport in China (and now India) is showing how quickly oil can be phased out. The building of electric metros in 86 Chinese cities, the development of 11,000km of fats train systems, linking cities and the growth of 250 million electric vehicles (mostly electric bikes and scooters), is now helping clear the air as well reduce greenhouse emissions.’
Just as India’s cities are poised to take up the mantle of development with sustainable energy and sustainable transport, African cities, are similarly facing this new agenda.’
‘The key message I have’, Professor Newman said, is that African cities should be strong in their goal t lead the world to a more sustainable future. The evidence is now in that you do not need fossil fuels to develop African cities economically and socially.
Press Statement: by Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability, Lead Author IPCC, Perth, Australia