Plant & Equipment

Does our approach to quarry rehabilitation require a rethink?

As we go to press, I note that Toowoomba Regional Council is being urged to consider a plan to convert a disused quarry into an “etopia” of gardens, an “eco-hotel”, a conference facility, amphitheatre, café and visitor centre.

If the plan proceeds, it would be one of several success stories of which the Australian quarry industry can be proud.

The Penrith Lakes development scheme outside Sydney, the Valley Lakes estate in Melbourne’s northwest and the Quarry Amphitheatre in Perth are examples of former quarries transformed into residential and recreational venues. They showcase to the public the roles quarries have in building societies – and what they give back to communities. Toowoomba’s garden project would reinforce this notion.

However, there are disused quarries around the country – some dormant for decades – that could do with makeovers. One only has to look at the challenges facing Hornsby Council now – how to refill and rehabilitate the old Hornsby quarry that has lain dormant for 11 years without creating constant truck movements and disrupting the Hornsby community.

It’s also rare but not unusual to hear of accidents in disused quarries because of inadequate security, eg teenagers drowning in “swimming holes” (where wastewater ponds are being refilled) or motor cycle and bicycle riders recklessly using pits for drag races and jumps. If the remediation process is slow or funds are insufficient to rehabilitate these sites, the owners can be held liable for duty of care.

In most jurisdictions, mines and quarries pay a rehabilitation bond that covers the full cost of remediation on their sites should they default on their obligations at a future time. In that event, the relevant state government can access the funds secured to pay for the remediation work. Provided the funds are sufficient, the government is not exposed to any risk.

However, in recent years, state governments have expressed impatience with large mines that have left rehabilitation to “the last minute” and whose costs have left taxpayers out of pocket. This had led to some jurisdictions reviewing the bond system’s effectiveness.

The Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection has recently received submissions from the resources industry about the bonds system, including views on an alternative risk-based, pooled fund model. The department concludes that as it is unlikely that the majority of the resources industry will default on their rehabilitation commitments, the Queensland Government can take a more risk-based approach to financial assurance.

Western Australia has gone a step further. From July, the WA Department of Mines and Petroleum introduced a mandatory Mining Rehabilitation Fund (see page 9). This requires holders of tenements with a rehabilitation liability of $50,000 or greater to make an annual, non-refundable payment into the MRF. WA quarries that operate on tenements are expected to contribute to the fund. The accumulated savings will be used for remediation in the event an operator defaults and the new system also encourages operators to conduct ongoing rehabilitation.

It will be interesting to see if other states follow WA’s lead and it begs the question: Should this type of pooled fund be implemented by all jurisdictions and broadened to include all quarries and small mines, with an emphasis on ongoing rehabilitation?

While industry members may flinch at this suggestion, a commitment to remediation in active quarries now would address the issue of what councils and land owners should do with quarry voids in the future. In addition to expediting the potential for new parks and recreation facilities, quarries would have the opportunity to work closely with local governments in planning and show the public their environmental credentials.

A commitment to ongoing rehabilitation and an improved financial assurance system may be just the tickets for the industry to reduce the regulatory hurdles that it encounters now across the country. And in turn, it gives each quarry the opportunity to show its commitment not only to the community today but towards positive outcomes tomorrow.

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