The Mt Morgan mineral mine operated for more than 100 years from 1882 to 1990. The site is now toxic and requires millions every year to stop it contaminating nearby waterways.

More than 99% of 'disturbed' mining land still needs repair

News Corp Australia
3rd March 2018 6:00 AM
premium_icon Subscriber only

EXCLUSIVE

MINING has disturbed a whopping 220,000 hectares of Queensland land, yet just 550ha or 0.25 per cent has been properly rehabilitated.

Government data shows just 18,000ha, eight per cent, of the 220,000ha total has been "progressively rehabilitated".

For scale, the proposed Adani mega-mine is expected to disturb 28,000ha that will need to be rehabilitated once the project stops production.

The cost of rehabilitating every hectare of land affected by mining in Queensland would top $8.7 billion, according to Treasury data.

Now a proposed law change could ensure the resource firms are the ones footing the bill for fixing up mining lands, even if they fall into liquidation.

Mining companies pay financial assurance to the government when a project is approved, akin to a rental bond on a house. If mine site land is returned to the government in perfect condition - fully rehabilitated - that assurance is returned.

In the past decade, no company has repaired a site well enough for a full refund.

If the miner cannot rehabilitate the site, or goes into liquidation, the assurance covers the cost.

But when the fund is not enough to cover the damage done, taxpayers are left to foot the bill.

 

REPAIRING THE FOOTPRINT: New Hope Group is undertaking an extensive rehabilitation program at its New Acland coal mine. - Photo Lyndon Keane / Dalby Herald
REPAIRING THE FOOTPRINT: New Hope Group is undertaking an extensive rehabilitation program at its New Acland coal mine. Lyndon Keane

In one instance, a miner went into liquidation with its site needing up to $80 million in rehabilitation.

The government was holding a bond of just $3.6 million to cover costs - less than 5 per cent of what was needed.  

Labor proposed changes to the financial assurance system last year, and reintroduced the bill in parliament on February 15.

Among the changes, the government would pool the mining cash and use the interest earned to rehabilitate abandoned and historic sites scattered across the state.

Deputy Premier Jackie Trad said the new system was a "tailored approach" that would protect taxpayers by ensuring companies contributed enough to cover potential damage to the environment.

"It will make sure the community is protected from failed resource projects and will deliver more funds to rehabilitate mine sites and introduce regular reporting and checks," she said.  

The Opposition is waiting to scrutinise the bill through the parliamentary committee process before deciding whether to support it.

 

HOW BIG IS THE PROBLEM?

Of the 15,000 mine sites left abandoned across the state, 3500 are on public land and 20 are considered a serious problem.

The toxic Mt Morgan Mine outside Rockhampton requires $3 million a year of taxpayer funds to keep it from poisoning rivers up to 40km away.

Major miners including Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton as well as the Minerals Council of Australia have publicly declared their dedication to fixing mine sites.

Ian Macfarlane, chief executive of the Queensland Resources Council. June 2017
Head of mining lobby group Queensland Resources Council and former Abbott Government resources minister Ian Macfarlane Bev Lacey

Lobby group Queensland Resources Council writes on its website that "to keep the disturbance footprint to a minimum, resource companies aim to progressively rehabilitate the land as operations advance...".

The latest land rehabilitation figures from Queensland Treasury Corporation are part of the state's case to reform the financial assurance system. The government hopes to make sure new mine sites are never again left abandoned and in disrepair.

By cracking down on how it collects financial assurances, the government hopes to stop any future mine sites becoming toxic wastelands.  

 

What 200,000 hectares looks like - a 20km-wide slice that stretches from Brisbane CBD to Sunshine Coast.
What 200,000 hectares looks like - a 20km-wide slice that stretches from the Brisbane CBD to Sunshine Coast. Owen Jacques

 

SO WHAT ARE THE CHANGES?

These reforms are designed to stop the public having to pay to rehabilitate sites if a company goes bust.

The government intends to pool all the mining cash to earn interest. Those extra funds would be used to rehabilitate abandoned sites.

QRC chief executive and former Abbott Government resources minister Ian Macfarlane said the group was "looking forward to working constructively with government on the reforms".

BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance operates seven coal mines throughout Central Queensland plus the Hay Point Coal Terminal south of Mackay.

It "supports the objectives" of the reforms, a spokesman said. 

 

Adani's construction is taking shape.
If developed, Adani's Carmichael Coal Mine will disturb 27,709 hectares of land during its 50 years of operation. Contributed

 

WHAT ARE WE WORRIED ABOUT?

Environmental Defenders Office chief Jo-Ann Bragg said the industry had a history of "deceptive" conduct when it came to repairing land.

EDO works to provide legal support to community groups or landholders who are fighting for protection in court, often from mining and development.

Ms Bragg described the review into the system as "fantastic".

"The mining industry is happy to make vague promises and then later on, to point to the vagueness of the legal commitment as the reason not to do what's expected of them in terms of cleanup," she said.

 

 

The abandoned Mt Morgan mine in Central Queensland requires $3m per year to avoid it polluting rivers as far as 40km away.
The abandoned Mt Morgan mine in Central Queensland requires $3m per year to avoid it polluting rivers as far as 40km away. DEHP

"The public has to make sure the mining companies doing major projects are fully accountable to really obviate the risk of losing money.

"It's terribly important that we get enough paid into financial assurance for major coal projects."

 

HOW MUCH IT COSTS TO FIX MINE SITES

We asked the Department of Environment how much it was holding to rehabilitate certain Queensland mines. If these companies suddenly vanished, this is how much the state has to repair the sites.

• BMA Daunia (Moranbah): $45,723,207.00

• BMA Caval Ridge (Moranbah): $79,365,245
 

The Caval Ridge Southern Circuit project is progressing well.
BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance's new conveyor belt system is under construction at its Caval Ridge mine outside Moranbah. BMA


• Stanmore Coal's Isaac Plains (Moranbah): $19,390,967.98

• Terracom's Blair Athol (formerly Rio Tinto): $79,698,023.05

• Adani's Carmichael Coal Mine: $1,252,046.40 
(Note: Carmichael mine has a small financial assurance to reflect its early stages of progress. If approved, that amount would change significantly)

 

Follow Owen Jacques on Facebook and Twitter.