Dark matter of mine closure for small town

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A small town in Victoria once put an ad on Facebook seeking 101 uses for a big hole.

The pit from the 150-year-old gold mine was a kilometre deep and operations were set to close, so the community decided to do its best to fill the looming gap in the local economy.

The social media campaign made it clear no idea was too ridiculous for Stawell.

Eventually, an Italian government-backed bid for an underground physics laboratory to unlock the mysteries of dark matter won out and secured the subterranean prize.

Local coffee shops quickly printed menus in Italian and local wineries began to plan for new tourists.

The lab is a first for the Southern Hemisphere and also won the support of state and federal governments.

The experiment will in fact rely on two similar detectors: one already in operation at the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso in Italy as well as the one deep underground at Stawell where leading physicists will do their universe-busting work.

It’s a “small but uplifting” example of remediating an old mine, regional economic development expert Fiona Haslam-McKenzie recently told an international mining conference in Sydney.

There are very few examples globally of mines receiving their certificates for closure and being transferred to governments or communities for a new use.

Across 10 current closure projects globally, Rio Tinto executive Melanie Stutsel says it’s working with local communities to understand their aspirations and hand over assets that can be managed locally.

“A good example of this is at Gove, where we’re looking at our light fuel storage, port and wharf and how that might deliver an ongoing economic opportunity for young people,” she says.

Rio has closed the Argyle pink diamond mine in Western Australia and will shutter the Gove alumina refinery in the remote North East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

Dismantling the refinery is expected to take 10 years but decontamination, remediation and rehabilitation of the area in collaboration with traditional owners could take generations.

Greg Scanlan, head of health, safety and environment at Oceana Gold, says there’s a need to have clear criteria but to be flexible and keep talking to the community and regulators.

“You can plan for mine closure with safe and stable landform as your go and 20 to 30 years later you’ve got a town that’s grown closer to you – or more around you,” he says.

More options for land use and old facilities may need to be considered.

Mine closure specialist Jeremy Durbin, from global engineering and consultancy firm WSP Golder, says plans are based on models and assumptions but need regular reviews to avoid pitfalls and extra costs.

“In some instances they collect dust for decades and that’s dangerous,” he says.

“Other sites have very rigorous closure standards that require reviews on an annual basis.”

Bringing genuine cost estimates into the plan avoids shock at the end of the mine’s life, he says.

“You can actually set the bar a bit high on cost. It might look ugly but it’s real.”

Mr Durbin also says he expects the Queensland government’s approach to spread through other jurisdictions.

Mines operating in Queensland are legally required to rehabilitate sites and have a step-by-step plan that explains what will happen, which keeps environmental regulators and communities informed.

“They are very transparent documents that are publicly available and it commits every site in Queensland to say what milestones you’re going to hit,” he says.

“And that really is a big kick up the backside, to start improving closure knowledge.”

James Anderson, group manager at Theiss Remediation, shows images from a drone flyover to explain different phases of work and advances in landform shaping to mimic natural contours of land.

The older works were now indistinguishable from the surrounding Ravensworth state forest, he said.

Looking at last year’s rehabilitation, the area has been seeded and fertilised, while work from two to three years ago had resulted in grass and tree species introduced.

“What we’re now finding is fauna relocating out of Ravensworth state forest and into the rehabilitation zone,” he says.

Rehabilitation is no longer an add-on to project plans as companies as financiers and customers demand better on environmental, social and governance (ESG).

“The sooner the better – for your ESG reputation, for the environment, to ease regulatory pressure and save long-term expenditure and lock in cost certainty,” Mr Anderson says.

“Make it count, be an early adopter and your liability can be an opportunity.”

Simon Ball, partner at MinterEllison, calls for governments to be more nimble.

“A lot of the legal frameworks are designed to establish new mines and they lock in an outcome very early in the planning process,” he says.

All new mining projects must have a closure plan to get the green light from all levels of government.

“Whereas when you actually get to closure … it may come to light that outcomes are not achievable or the community has moved on or expectations have moved on,” he says.

He says the renewable energy boom is a classic example of how Australian bureaucracy needs to adapt.

“Brownfield (currently operating) mines are a perfect place for pumped hydro, solar, et cetera but the window for doing that and delivering that closes very quickly.”

Governments need to be able to take advantage of a market opportunity when proposed changes are put to them, Mr Ball says.

Home to Australia’s oldest and richest foot race, the $120,000 Stawell Gift, the town’s gold mine is also a gift that keeps on giving.

Stawell Gold Mines re-opened two years after closing and is on the brink of a new phase of development after promising drilling results from its Old Roo prospect.

“The goldmining company is now operating alongside an underground physics laboratory,” Prof Haslam-McKenzie says.

“It was really led by the local shire and then all the other spheres of government got behind it.”

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