Victoria was the heart of the Australian Gold Rush in the 1850’s with most activity occuring in and around Ballarat and Bendigo. The Gold Rush attracted people from around the globe, many from Europe and China, the miners were known as ‘diggers’. The ever expanding population of diggers caused a lot of tension – from the competitive and desperate search for gold, to the locals who were concerned about the increase in crime, to racial tensions from the melting pot of cultures converging in Victoria. Tensions reached a critical mass in 1954 with the introduction of a monthly mining licensing fee. This led to the Eureka Stockade or ‘rebellion’ involving armed battle between diggers and authorities, arrests, seditious libel and finally ending with male miners being given rights to vote and stand for parliament. This has been a defining moment in Australian history, for democracy, for the union movement and workers and for the mining lobby.
There are thousands of legacy mine sites in Victoria including shafts and historic gold mines from the 1800’s. Given the historic importance of the Gold Rush and all that came with it many legacy mines are now protected under the Heritage Act 1995, these sites will never be rehabilitated. There is no database of legacy mines or shafts so there is no exact figure on how many sites there are, the footprint of the sites or what kind of environment or public health risk they pose.
There are a few small open cut mines that are abandoned, these are typically narrow but they can be quite deep. There are also some abandoned quarries. Mining infrastructure has largely disappeared over time through scavenging. There are also some spoil dumps and the odd dredge with heritage listing.
Major public concern on legacy mine sites in Victoria are centred around abandoned shafts and arsenic in tailings, both pose a public health risk.
The Earth and Energy Resources of the Department of Primary Industry has no policy, program or fund in place to rehabilitate legacy mine sites in Victoria. The EER offers some advice about legacy mines and there are efforts to address public health risks from any mining legacy which is done in collaboration between the Department of Health. There are some issues with arsenic in tailings around the Goldfields. Rather than cleaning up the arsenic the EER has worked with the Department of health in community education and awareness programs on arsenic in sands and tailings to avoid them being used.
There have been instances where the EER have remediated abandoned sites but have done so in an ad hoc way, based on the situation rather than any legislated responsibilities.
For example the Benambra sulphide mine was abandoned in the 1990’s. The EER was called into rehabilitate the site. There was a bond which was drawn on, it fell short of what was needed to rehabilitate the site. The EER then sold off assets at the site and were granted further funds from the Department of Treasury and Finance. All together they used $6million to rehabilitate the tailings, to remove acid producing materials from spoils that had been left on the surface and put them in the dump.
The EER has no position on either identifying shafts or filling them in. They are addressed on a case by case basis. There is a database of abandoned shafts in Bendigo because of the high volume of shafts. This database is not run by the EER.
The EER is undergoing some regulatory change,but unlike other states or territories which seek to address issues around legacy sites as well as compliance and rehabilitation the changes in Victoria only look to improve compliance and rehabilitation.
There is a bond system for new mines – small mine sites have a standard bond per hectare bigger mines must use the bond calculator based on assessing different aspects of the mine, processing, tailings, pit etc. Bonds should reflect 100% of closure, bonds are regularly reviewed and adjusted.
For more information on environmental issues and the publics rights to engage see the Victoria Environmental Defenders Office fact sheets on environment law in Victoria.
Energy and Earth Resources information on minerals
Register of heritage sites
Heritage Rat – blogs/ photo’s on Victorian Gold Mines
Department of Health information on arsenic
Vic Government shafts information
EPA public advice on arsenic in tailings
Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Amendment Bill 2012
Vic EDO fact sheets