Rehabilitating Australia’s mines

Scarlett Evans 29 July 2020 (Last Updated July 28th, 2020 17:42)

As one of the world’s most significant mining hubs, a vast proportion of Australia’s land is given over to industry. Yet every new project has a lifespan, and suitably rehabilitating these sites once operations have closed their doors remains a crucial problem in the country’s mining sector - a problem that the software-as-a-service company Decipher is seeking to remedy.

Rehabilitating Australia’s mines
“One of the most common post-mining land uses is for agricultural purposes such as grazing, though mine sites can also be entirely repurposed,” said Anthony Walker. Credit: Decipher

Established to assist Australia with its mine rehabilitation, Decipher is a spin out of the industrial division of Wesfarmers, and uses technology such as remote sensing data and environmental analysis to deliver sustainable rehabilitation solutions. It is also currently involved in CRC-TiME, an initiative launched by the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland to find sustainable solutions for regional communities following mine closures. Decipher CEO Anthony Walker spoke to us about Australia’s rehabilitation problem, and what more miners should be doing.

Scarlett Evans (SE): Could you tell me a bit about your company – what is your mission?

Anthony Walker (AW): Decipher delivers cloud solutions that help drive sustainability, productivity, and improvements across mining, tailings monitoring, and waste management. Our mission is to provide solutions to customers that enable optimal resource management.

Drawing on 100 years of agricultural knowledge and expertise in products, soils, research, and agronomy, Decipher is now sharing its technology with the mining industry to improve and encourage progressive mine and land rehabilitation, as well as tailings monitoring.

SE: What is the landscape currently like in Australia when it comes to abandoned mines? What problems do they pose?

AW: There are a significant number of abandoned mines across the country, and with a mining footprint that increased significantly in Western Australia through the 2000’s, there is going to be a huge increase in mine closures in 10 to 20 years’ time.

Abandoned mines represent significant liabilities for state and territory governments, which are ultimately responsible for the costs associated with safety and environmental hazards resulting from these sites. According to a report from the Senate inquiry into the rehabilitation of mining and resources projects published in March 2019, the cost of rehabilitating all major abandoned mine sites in Australia would run into billions of dollars.

While the industry challenges the actual number (estimates put it at more than 50,000 abandoned mines), everyone agrees that there are many abandoned mines in Australia and, until recently, mine rehabilitation has been an afterthought for most mining companies. However, this is beginning to change, particularly with increased stakeholder pressure, environmental concerns, climate change discussions, and regulatory changes.

The entire industry has a responsibility to do better and implement best practice strategies, and we believe Decipher could revolutionise the task of mine rehabilitation and closure, and ultimately improve the rates of relinquishment of land – either back to the Government or another organisation for use.

SE: What are some of the environmental damages from abandoned mines?

AW: Mining poses a variety of environmental risks, including potential impacts on ground and surface water quantity and quality, air quality, biodiversity, landscape stability, and climate change. Environmental monitoring is critical in understanding environmental health, efficiencies, constraints, and upholding compliance

Enhanced data collection and analysis is necessary to fill in critical gaps in ecological and hydrological knowledge at regional and national levels, enabling a robust scientific assessment of environmental risks at a whole-of-ecosystem scale.

While Australia’s mining sector has the skill and motivation necessary to manage and mitigate these risks, until recently there was limited technology available to assist with the management and monitoring of project-specific data requirements.

Decipher’s platform is now helping mining companies drive effective environmental monitoring, with its environmental monitoring and sampling module providing companies with the tools they need to manage project-specific data requirements.

SE: What kind of things can these sites be transformed into following mine closure?

AW: One of the most common post-mining land uses is for agricultural purposes such as grazing, though mine sites can also be entirely repurposed. This often occurs after, or alongside, other activities in the closure process, and they are often reused for more than one purpose. This indicates that though the previous mining land-use may have been singular, post-mining transitions are not.

Common repurposing land-uses can include: community and culture; conservation and ecosystem services; intensive recreation: and commercial purposes. Examples of successful repurposing projects include the Zollverein coal mine in Germany, which was repurposed into an entertainment hub, and  the Lefdal mine in Norway, which was turned into a data center.

SE: What assistance does your technology offer for this process?

AW: Decipher has been designed to help support, develop, and demonstrate rehabilitation management plans and compliance. We work to manage risks and issues around things such as pit backfilling, rapid flooding, slope instability, and acid generation, as well as provide a central repository for information, environmental monitoring dat,a and compliance.

Based on strong underlying science, Decipher is backed by regulatory technology, satellite-derived earth observation data, a central repository for historic data, a reporting suite, and corresponding environmental evaluation. This allows us to provide our clients with the data and insights they need to ensure they’re meeting environmental obligations and compliance, allowing them to plan for the closure and rehabilitation of their sites in a way that has a positive impact on their sustainability and social licence to operate.

SE: Could you tell me about CRC-TiME, particularly your role within it and your hopes for what it could bring to the Australian mining sector?

AW: With only a few examples of successful mine closure in Australia, there is considerable uncertainty in closure-related investment, planning, and decision making.

Sustainable and responsible mine closure practices have been highlighted as a priority by the Commonwealth Government in the National Resource Statement 2019, and it is also viewed as an area where Australia could create new opportunities by exporting its technologies and expertise globally.

To support that objective, a ten year, national and collaborative Collaborative Research Centre for Transitions in Mining Economies (CRC TiME) has been established to help the industry drive progressive rehabilitation, and enable effective closure and relinquishment of mine sites. It brings together over 70 industry leading partners, including major mining and mining equipment [businesses]; technology and services companies; regional development organisations; local, state, and Commonwealth Government: and research partners.

One of the key focuses for the CRC-TiME will revolve around the technological solutions to minimise risk from mining operations. Facilitating the research on mine rehabilitation, Decipher will be leveraging its technology to assist with the data management and environmental monitoring. Among other applications, our technology will help users to monitor vegetation health and performance, create management zones across project areas, and capture a wide range of environmental monitoring data and indicators such as water, air, noise, vibration, and soil.