I’ve been following with interest the proposed development of the Hillside Mine by Rex Minerals, as well as both the concerns and support from within the community. Nick Perry’s articles and the accompany Letters to the Editor in the Tuesday August 12 issue of the ‘Yorke Peninsula Country Times’ cover the range of views. There is no doubt that the State is desperate for investment which generates jobs, and this clearly ‘flavours’ the decision by the Government and the mining regulator to approve the proposed mine on the basis of ‘overall public benefit’.
However, there is another dimension to the proposed mine and this is likely to have a lasting negative impact: the proposed mine pits will not be rehabilitated.
Open-cut mining operations are generally destructive of land by their very nature. Open-cut, base-metal mining operations are additionally problematic in having the potential to generate and ‘leak’ acid and toxic metals, like copper.
‘Enlightened’ mining companies wanting a lasting positive interaction with the communities in which they operate work their mine plan so that they can strategically place metallic and acid-producing wastes at depth in the pit (effectively a geological containment) and backfill with benign waste rock and soil. Thus, the landscape has a chance to ‘recover’ somewhat and gradually return to something like a pre-mining condition in the long term.
Much of the land on and around the proposed mine, as in other parts of Yorke Peninsula, has been farmed by some families for up to 140 years. Hillside might operate for a decade and a half. So the community gets stuck, for the long term, with an open pit that will eventually part-fill with water and is likely to be contaminated by base metals. The land will affectively have little or no value. It is likely to require ongoing monitoring to ensure that contamination does not leak offsite and also regular intervention from both the safety and environmental perspectives.
Mining companies effectively ‘borrow’ lands from communities to advance their business, pay their taxes, make returns to shareholders, and hopefully inject money and jobs into local regions. I think that they also have an ethical obligation to return the lands that they’ve effectively ‘borrowed’ (albeit some companies may purchase property for the life of the operation) in good condition so that there is some long-term value to the community. At the outset, mining companies clearly register community concerns about rehabilitation and contamination through statutory community consultation programs. Consequently, they have the opportunity to research and develop mining strategies and plans that give them the best opportunity to rehabilitate the landscape at the end of mine life. ‘We can’t afford to backfill pits because it would make the proposed mine uneconomic’ is not an appropriate response. Why should communities be left with this legacy?
Mining regulators must make it very clear well ahead of project initiation that they may permit mining operations that potentially leave the community (and the State) with the costs for maintaining the long-term legacies of open-cut, base-metal mining operations. We are now only just seeing the advance of short-term mine operations into productive agricultural areas and towards urban settlements in this State. We’re also seeing the signs of community outrage that must be addressed if all are to benefit from State development projects such as mining.