Mining and the Environment

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The protestors currently blocking major Coal Seam Gas (CSG) operator Santos access to the Pillaga State forest in NSW maybe have versions of the film Avatar playing out in their heads. You know the scenario: big heartless mining company arrives in town to rip up and destroy a pristine environment just for the sake of their profit. But is it really the case that mining today equates with unscrupulous companies wanting to plunder untouched natural habitats, just like the fictitious mining entity RDA threatening the beautiful world of Pandora in its unrelenting search for unobtanium?

The current state of play between mining and the environment in modern Australia is far from blatant exploitation of the natural world for purely financial means. Indeed, mining companies must carry out extensive environmental studies before a spadeful of dirt is ever dug and companies that show initiative in greening up their acts are now specially recognised and rewarded by governments. 

However, this clean and green situation wasn’t always the case.

So let’s take a look at the impact mining has had on the environment over the decades:

Australian gold rushes

gold-rush

This historic period of mining could conjure up images of the humble miner quietly panning for gold by the side of a softly flowing stream. But what we probably didn’t learn in our primary school projects is that the gold rushes in Australia beginning in the 1850s did significant damage to the Australian landscape. In the hunt for one of the Earth’s most precious metals, gold mining in those days meant upturning large areas of land before moving on to the next site to repeat the process. This type of operation had many negative impacts, including: soil erosion, increased levels of salinity, loss of bio-diversity and extinction of native species. The gold rushes also resulted in the creation of many new towns as the population of Australia swelled by 600,000 between 1851 and 1860.


The open cut era

OPEN-CUT-RUM-JUNGLE
Geophysicist Don Dyson (left), Jack White (middle) and Geologist Hector Ward examining ore sample at Rum Jungle using Geiger counter (1955). National Archives of Australia: A1200, L19445

The late 1930’s in Australia saw the advent of large-scale open cut mining especially in the black coal industry. Open cut mining can cause major changes to the landscape. In order to dig a big hole in the ground land must be cleared of vegetation and soil removed to allow access to the ore body in the sub strata. However, these environmental can be offset by such measures as filling in tailings dams in order that revegetation takes place. Communities located near open cut mines can also propose that the mine be repurposed for such things as water storage or as an epic motocross track.


The happening 70s

1970s

The mining industry in Australia underwent significant changes in the 1970s and these changes paved the way for how the types of environmental considerations mining companies must make today. The boom of the 1970s resulted in big dollars being spent on developing mine sites in remote areas of the country such as the Pilbarra region in Western Australia and the Bowen Basin in Queensland. The 1970s also saw legislation passed that recognised Aborigines as traditional land owners in the Northern Territory and some other states. This necessitated the coming together of mining companies and Aboriginal communities in order to ensure environmental protection standards are met.

The 1970s also gave rise to the contentious issue of mining Kakadu for its rich reserves of uranium. If mining bosses thought that digging up one of the world’s most renowned national parks and sacred Aboriginal sites for a radioactive material that could be used as a weapon of mass destruction wasn’t going to upset the environmentalists, they were kidding themselves.


Current state of play

modern-mining

Mining has come a long way from the “dig first, ask questions later”-type approach of yesteryear. In order to conduct mining operations in this day and age, mining companies must undertake extensive environmental studies and submit their plans for governments to scrutinise. If an endangered species is found to be inhabiting the proposed mine site then the mining company may as well begin looking elsewhere for a place to dig.

This was what Clive Palmer discovered in 2011 thanks to bird-watchers who spotted the endangered black-throated finch in a central Queensland nature reserve prior to operations by Waratah Coal's planned China First mine getting underway. Yet this state of affairs is nothing new to the mining industry. Indeed, small birds have always had the power to put a stop to mining operations. Coal miners in the days before sophisticated ventilation systems and warning devices would always stop work when the canary in the cage fell off its perch.

Written By:

MINETALK TWITTER

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Minetalk Poll

Is the mining boom in Australia over?

Is the mining boom in Australia over?

No, it's just media hype.
Yes as a result of lower demand.
Still plenty of resources.
There will be a second boom.
1 Votes left

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