Thursday, May 27, 2010

Data Mining: Environmental Research in the Minerals Industry

For as far as the eye can see, there are a mounds and holes. Our perception of Mining in outback Australia is a lot smaller than the reality. Mining brings wealth at a potential cost to the environment. However, the impact  is being mitigated by dedicated environmental professionals.

View from my hotel window, Kalgoorlie. The Super Pit waste and walls in the background.

Until last week, I was unaware of the extent of mining in Australia. Kalgoorlie-Boulder is the centre of the Goldfields region of Western Australia. Flying over the region, you can see mine after mine. Some of the white scars from mine voids can be viewed in the map (below). From my hotel window, third story on a main street in Kalgoorlie, I could see the walls and waste from the Super Pit. To my left more waste dumps and a shaft. To my right, batters and mounds. Mining was literally as far as I could see. As an environmental professional, there is immediate concern about the impact this large scale of mining has on the environment. However, the mining industry is also one of Australia's largest supporters of environmental research and best practice management.

View Larger Map

Although the Goldfields are dotted with mines, they are also leaders in Environmental Management. Due to legislative requirements and social considerations, mining companies have become leaders in environmental management in Australia. For example, the largest body of research into Jarrah forests has been undertaken by Alcoa Pty Ltd who mine bauxite in the WA jarrah region (see Restoration Ecology, Issue 4, Supplement, 2007). Kalgoorlie-Boulder is not only home to the Super Pit, but it is also home to the Goldfields Environmental Management Group (GEMG). The group is formed by leaders of mine environmental management. GEMG provide a workshop every 2-years to environmental professionals in the mining industry. Their recent workshop was held in Kalgoorlie from the 19th - 21st May. I attended the workshop as a speaker.

The workshop aims to exchange knowledge and improve environmental practices in the mining industry.  Industry, Academia, Government and Consultants are all invited to the three-day workshop to share ideas. Every person who attends the workshop is there to learn how to improve environmental management in mining. This is encouraged at the workshop by working together, being honest about wins and failures and sharing knowledge. Some interesting discussions included: transport and use of mined products; fauna and flora surveys; troglofauna (animals that live in caves and holes); salt lake ecology; mine wastes; landscape rehabilitation; recovering soil microbiology; ecosystem function analysis and changes to legislation. At the end of each day, you were guaranteed to leave with one new idea to help improve environmental management in mining. However, you also left every day asking more questions; how can I rehabilitate that site? Will gypsum work? Do I have troglofauna on my site and what does it mean?

Mining has a key role in Global environmental research. We uncover more and more questions as we continue to mine, and this is a great opportunity for research. Mines are often located in remote regions, where little is known of the environ or how to go about management. Technology is improving, and mines grow, with new potential impacts on the environment. Research can benefit the industry by providing solutions to old and new environmental problems. Some topics for research may include: ecosystem engineering or replacing self-sustaining and resilient ecosystems; fire ecology and consequences in mine life and closure; climate change and rehabilitation; water security; indigenous issues; long-term economic and social consequences of mine closure.

This research could also benefit other industries. Apart from better mine environmental management, research in these fields can also provide opportunity to learn more about how our environment works. We can translate research from the mining industry into other parts of our lives. This may include agriculture, forestry, urban living and National Park management. Many mining companies are now investing in environmental research, both for their own management and for broader community use. This includes Centre for Land Rehabilitation, Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation, Barrick Gold Pty Ltd, AngloGold Ashanti, Alcoal Pty Ltd and more.

Mining and environment traditionally did not coexist, but this is changing. As long as the world continues to use mineral resources, mining will continue to progress. We all know that one person can not change the world. However, one person can make a big difference in an organisation. Strong and driven individuals have demonstrated to improve environmental management in mining. With groups such as the GEMG, there is peer support of these individuals. This allows individuals to work as part of broader team that seeks similar outcomes and can lobby for better environmental management. With individuals and groups such as the GEMG, mining has the potential grow hand-in-hand with environmental research and management.

(The author has not been paid by any organisation for this review, and is a member of an independant research organisation.)

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