Australia is becoming a land of ghost mines – where companies that have profited from the mining boom are abandoning old depleted mine sites without taking responsibility for their environmental impacts.
Mine rehabilitation is fast becoming a national problem requiring a national solution. There are now hundreds of abandoned mines across the country with major mining companies washing their hands on non-productive mines, and concurrently the government keeps approving new mines.
The cut and run mentality of many mining companies means their business plan involves making packets of fast money digging up our resources, and when they’re done or when the commodity price drops the resources are depleted - in the most part, they drop everything and leave.
Of course mining companies are supposed to clean up their mess, but this process is governed at a state level with varying levels of lax controls. Many mines are approved without any serious rehabilitation plans in place, and many leave bonds or assurances that are a tiny proportion of what it actually costs to clean up.
Who pays the rest? Either the state government, or no one, and the mine is simply left as it was on the day the company stopped mining.
The Victorian government’s recent announcement that coal companies must increase existing bonds to 100 per cent of their estimated cost of rehabilitation upfront by June 2017 demonstrates some much needed state government leadership in a problem that will only keep growing.
Responding to the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, Premier Daniel Andrews was in Morwell last week facing up to a community that has felt the full cost of this problem. The Hazelwood mine caught fire in 2014, as a result of poor management of the mine site by the company GDF Suez.
The site was supposed to be progressively rehabilitating, but instead, areas were left unsafe and vulnerable to catching fire. The fire burned for 45 days, covering Morwell and surrounding areas and residents with a heavy toxic smoke.
This welcome solution for one area in Victoria needs to become the norm all over the country. In NSW it was recently revealed that coal firms had the right to claim the planting of grass or trees on old mine sites as conservation offsets for future woodland destruction.
The price of coal has dropped, and as a result, companies that flocked to Australia in the coal boom, are now scrambling to get out.
With mines going cheap, two questions come to mind. If small under-resourced companies are able to buy mines for a dollar, who will clean up once they leave? And in this flooded market, why are state and federal governments approving new coal mines and mine expansions?
The proposed Carmichael coal mine has been approved by both the Queensland and Federal governments, but Adani, the proponent, has no land access agreement with traditional owners, no social licence, and is relying on an Indian market that is well and truly overflowing.
Carmichael could become the latest addition to a growing cast of ghost mines – haunting future generations and leaving a toxic legacy in their wake. Victoria has shown the type of leadership required – this approach should be rolled out nationally as a matter of urgency.