Rehabilitation and Relinquishment
Resources companies are committed to rehabilitating land to a state where it can be passed on safely and sustainably for the next land use
During operations, resource developments bring significant benefits to regional communities and Queensland. However, these developments have a limited lifespan and provide one of many alternative land uses over time. As such, resource companies understand the importance of rehabilitation and returning the land to a state where it can be passed on safely and sustainably for the next land use.
The resources sector’s approach to rehabilitation has improved significantly over past decades in line with emerging techniques, evolving corporate values, community expectations and law. These advances in rehabilitation have resulted in a modern regulatory framework, which is supported by an ongoing commitment by the resources sector to refine and develop innovative methods for rehabilitation.
Rehabilitation is an important part of the resources sector’s environmental performance and is effectively considered as another component of operations. The sector does not consider rehabilitation as something that begins towards the end of the operation, but rather a process that begins in the planning phase and is progressively sequenced throughout the life of the operation.
The resources sector is advancing rehabilitation in Queensland and showcasing its commitment and exceptional stewardship in attaining on-ground results.
How is rehabilitation regulated?
Individual site rehabilitation requirements are set through relevant environmental authority (EA) conditions established by Government under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (EP Act). Implementation of these conditions is provided through the Plan of Operations, which provides a regularly updated schedule for extraction and rehabilitation targets, and outlines the activities that will deliver a safe, stable, non-polluting and self-sustaining landform consistent with the agreed next land use/s. This regulatory framework is currently under review by the Queensland Government.
Companies are required to demonstrate that rehabilitation is being achieved, through routine monitoring and reporting (including Annual Returns) to Government, both to maintain compliance and in recognition of retaining a social licence to operate.
The existing rehabilitation regulatory framework for mining activities is currently under review. It is the Queensland Government’s intent to introduce life-of-mine planning (i.e. commencement through to relinquishment) to better track the progress of rehabilitation as land becomes available over time. QRC and its member companies are consulting with Government on the proposed reform.
Queensland has a system authorised under the EP Act which allows for Government, who must be confident that relevant conditions have been complied with and rehabilitation has been completed satisfactorily, to sign off (or certify) an area prior to relinquishment. However, it is important to note that resource companies continue to remain responsible for the ongoing upkeep of certified areas until relinquishment.
Progressive certification provides the resources sector with regulatory certainty when carrying out rehabilitation and gives the sector confidence that rehabilitated areas will not be subject to future changes in requirements or expectations over time.
Since early 2016, the resources sector has taken a proactive approach, through the testing of real rehabilitation case studies, to assist Government in determining how to best utilise and consistently implement the certification framework.
On 2 June 2017, Glencore’s Newlands was the first open cut coal mine to receive certification for 73 hectares of rehabilitation associated with part of an overburden dump. This milestone marks a significant achievement and provides a constructive way forward for both Government and the mining sector in encouraging further certification of progressive rehabilitation. Glencore’s success was also acknowledged by Government. To read more about the rehabilitation at Newlands click here.
Glencore will be using the key learnings from the Newlands certification case study to look for additional opportunities to obtain certification in other areas of the site along with its Collinsville, Oakey Creek and Rolleston mines.
The Queensland Government requires proponents of all resource activities to provide financial security (i.e. financial assurance) prior to the commencement of approved activities. This payment is a guarantee that the State holds adequate funding for rehabilitation of sites in the event that a person or company defaults on its obligations.
Financial assurance is based on the maximum disturbance footprint for a given period between one and five years. The amount is determined using the approved method provided in the Guideline for Financial Assurance under the Environmental Protection Act 1994.
Financial assurance is held and regulated by the Government while operations are underway, with a company only able to commence activities once it has paid the required financial assurance amount. The Government has the power to amend the amount of financial assurance under the following circumstances:
- The amount of financial assurance can be increased if there is an increase in the disturbance footprint; or
- The amount of financial assurance can be reduced if Government provides sign off that progressive rehabilitation has met all relevant environmental conditions (i.e. progressive rehabilitation certification).
The existing financial assurance regulatory framework for the resources sector is currently under review. It is the Queensland Government’s intent to introduce a pooled fund scheme that:
- Assesses resource sites individually having regard to:
- The likelihood the site could be sold to another party in the event its current owner fails;
- The company’s (or parent company) financial risk (soundness); and
- Attributes of the site and operation itself.
- Uses a range of financial security arrangements, including a pooled (tiered category) fund and surety instruments (e.g. bank guarantees, insurance, cash), that appropriately reflects the assessed risk categorisation, which ultimately determines the amount payed to the pooled fund.
QRC and its member companies, along with a range of other stakeholders, are consulting with Government on the proposed reform.
Relinquishment and next land use
While activities undertaken by the resources sector generally continue for many years and in some cases decades, they are still temporary in nature. Upon approach and at the time of closure, the priority for resource companies is to minimise long-term significant residual environmental impacts from operations and provide a safe, stable and non-polluting rehabilitated landform that is available for future economic activity, conservation or community use.
Relinquishment or surrender of an EA and related resources tenement is only granted once the Government is satisfied that all environmental requirements, in particular rehabilitation, have been achieved. Only at this stage can the ownership and responsibilities of the land be transferred to the next user.
The existing regulatory framework for relinquishment and residual risk is currently under review. QRC and its member companies are consulting with Government on proposed reform.
Care and maintenance
‘Care and maintenance’ is a term used in the mining sector to describe the status of a non-operational mine site where there is potential to recommence works at a later date. The decision to move a site into care and maintenance is a major decision for a mining company with all potential impacts carefully evaluated. One factor influencing this decision may be low commodity prices, which are often cyclical. Under these circumstances, a company may choose to manage the site until economic conditions are favourable to recommence operations.
There has been concern expressed by some external stakeholders that care and maintenance equates with premature closure of a mine, however, this is not the case. It is important to recognise that under Queensland’s regulatory framework, although periods of care and maintenance may last several years, the ongoing environmental liability for the site, including rehabilitation, remains with the company. It is not relinquished until Government requirements have been met. Care and maintenance should also not be confused with abandonment, which is safe-guarded by financial assurance mechanisms.
The existing regulatory framework is currently under review to better consider the definition and status of care and maintenance. QRC and its member companies are consulting with Government on proposed reform.
Abandoned mines are a legacy from historical operators before modern mining practices and environmental management and mine rehabilitation regulations were in place as they are today. The Queensland Government defines a site as an abandoned mine when a mining tenure no longer exists and there are no legal avenues requiring the company or individuals that created the mining disturbance to carry out remediation.
There has been a range of public communications from non-industry groups that 15,000 abandoned mines in Queensland. Whilst the Queensland Government confirms the reported figure in accordance with its own definition, most of these sites are very small, and present no or little risk to the environment.
It is important for it to be recognised that the majority of the abandoned mines in Queensland are associated with old workings carried out over the last century, including mine shafts, tunnels and other features created during the gold rush and exploration drill holes for other commodities. Only a very small portion of the 15,000 recorded abandoned mines represent large and complex operations of significance that require ongoing remediation and rehabilitation as part of the Government’s Abandoned Mine Lands Program.
The Abandoned Mine Lands Program, administered by the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines, progressively assesses abandoned mine sites and takes action to reduce significant environmental and public health and safety risks. While there are such initiatives underway aimed at addressing abandoned mines, QRC and its member companies are focused on undertaking operations responsibly and delivering on rehabilitation requirements in accordance with strict environmental conditions and regulations. This focus is to ensure that no further abandoned mines are created in Queensland.
The existing framework for the operation of the Abandoned Mine Lands Program is currently under review. QRC and its member companies are consulting with Government on proposed reform.