Mining in Tasmania predates European occupation in 1803, with small scale salt and ochre mining. Coal was among the first minerals to be exploited commercially in Tasmania in 1834 at Plunket Point, followed by tin at Mt Bischoff in 1871 which heralded a Tasmanian mining boom. Gold, copper, zinc, lead and silver were all mined during the 1800’s in major mining precincts in the North West and North East of Tasmania. It was these early mines in particular Mt Bischoff, Mt Lyell, Rosebery, Beaconsfield and Zeehan that operated with almost no environmental restrictions that have created todays legacy issue of heavy metal pollution and acid mine drainage.
The magnitude of the mining legacy issues in Tasmania is unique given the high density of abandoned mines in a small area. There are 681 abandoned mine sites in Tasmania, 215 are a threat to the environment with rock that is potentially acid producing. Acid producing rock is the root cause of acid mine drainage (AMD) a chemical process that devastates water systems. The severity of the legacy issues and AMD in Tasmania are well accepted yet very little Government resources are allocated to rehabilitating these sites.
There is widespread community concern over the impact of mining legacy sites on water sources. The impact and evidence of pollution has led to the establishment of an active community group called Tasmanian Public and Environmental Health Network and their website Pollution Information Tasmania. They have identified 7 drinking water supplies and 60 waterways that have unacceptable levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium or other metals.
There is no ongoing monitoring of legacy sites but there is some investigation into sites where there is a high and well known public and environment risk. These sites are monitored through the Mining Lands Trust or in partnership with mining companies with active mines on the same site.
In 1995, shortly after the Mt Lyell mine was abandoned, after a 100 years of disposing of tailings into the King River catchment, an agreement was reached with the Tasmanian Mineral Council to establish the Rehabilitation Trust Fund to clean up mining legacy sites in Tasmania. An advisory committee was set up to advise the minister in relation to the priority legacy sites. The committee is made up of various Government agencies and the Tasmanian Mineral Council, there is no civil society group represented on the committee.
On average $160,000 a year is spent on rehabilitation works, a token amount compared to the funds needed to have any substantial impact on rehabilitation. The small amount of funds that are generated are done so by the appropriation and sale of machinery or buildings left on abandoned sites and forfeited security deposits.
In 2013 the Tasmanian EPA acknowledged publicly that the clean up of the 215 sites will not be funded through the Trust. This acknowledgment has been accompanied by increased involvement and expectation that new and proposed mines in Tasmania are to take on the responsibility of rehabilitating the abandoned mines within new mine leases. There are already partnerships with mining companies to rehabilitate legacy sites. For example there is a partnership between Government and Grange resources to rehabilitate Savage River with a total project budget of $12 million.
Rehabilitation activities at some of the worst sites have included capping shafts, revegetation, soil and water sampling, baseline surveys, improving drainage, works on tailings, weed control and seed collection.
There is criticism over the lack of initiative, commitment and funding from the Government to rehabilitate sites that pose a clear environmental and public health risk, compounded by decades of inaction. The Tasmanian Government is encouraging new mines rather than addressing the legacy issue of the States mining history.
Mineral Resources Tasmania has annual reporting on the work that has been conducted through the Mining Lands Trust Fund. This is available online to the public.
For more information on environmental issues and the publics rights to engage see the Tasmania Environmental Defenders Office fact sheets on environment law in Tasmania.
University of Tasmania – mining history http://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/M/Mining.htm
ABC news – EPA rehabilitation problem
Tasmanian Public and Environmental Health Network – Pollution Information Tasmania
Tasmanian Mineral Council, They came they mined they left… 681 times.
Mineral Resource Tasmania rehabilitation reporting Map:
Mineral Resource Tasmania – Rehabilitation Trust Fund http://www.mrt.tas.gov.au/portal/page?_pageid=35,831282&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL
Tas EDO fact sheets