December 2015

Book Review: Mining in Ecologically Sensitive Landscapes

  • By Reviewed by David Doley, Honorary Research Associate, Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation, Sustainable Minerals Institute, The University of Queensland

Valuable orebodies sometimes occur in ecologically sensitive landscapes, where any disturbance results in large and rapid changes in ecosystem condition, function or biodiversity. The desire to obtain mineral resources consequently conflicts with the desire to maintain valued ecosystem attributes. Mining in Ecologically Sensitive Landscapes examines situations, principally in Australia, where the extraction of iron, uranium and bauxite have posed challenges for the maintenance or restoration of threatened species or ecosystems.

Miningbook-imageIn Section One Burger describes the evolution of ecosystem reclamation goals from pasture to native forest for increasingly disruptive coal mining in Appalachia, USA that has preserved a social licence to operate. In contrast, Smith records the ultimate inability to reconcile the economic, ecological and cultural objectives of uranium mining in sparsely populated Kakadu, Australia and in Tanzania and Namibia. While this chapter focuses on the long-term health effects of radionuclides, recorded releases of mine waste materials containing magnesium sulfate at Kakadu pose more tangible risks to ecosystems than do radionuclide releases into environments where outcropping orebodies cause elevated background radionuclide concentrations.

Section Two analyses ironstone geosystems, where prospective or commercial banded ironstone formations coincide with endemic, highly distinctive and threatened biodiverse ecosystems that are either not adequately – or only recently – reserved. Howard describes how current mining operations have attempted to avoid impacts on biodiversity, but there is no analysis of the capacity to establish threatened species on reconstructed ironstone landscapes.

Section Three describes the ecological outcomes of 30-50 years of bauxite mining and restoration in jarrah forests in Western Australia and seasonally dry woodlands in the Northern Territory. The jarrah forest zone is ecologically sensitive not because of its limited size or endemic flora, but because it provides drinking water, timber, conservation and recreation opportunities for an adjacent metropolitan community. The Northern Territory objective is to return the land to traditional owners.

Section Four indicates the way forward for mining in sensitive ecosystems. Van der Ent proposes that metallophytes should be used to stabilise and decontaminate metalliferous mine waste sites and return some commercial benefit. Finally, Watson et al set out a proposal for the collaborative management of biodiversity, minerals (gold, nickel, iron ore) and cultural values in an area of about 160 000 km2 in southern Western Australia. A region-wide management structure is advocated to enhance environmental and ecological coherence, with the clear recognition that land management for co-occurring and contemporaneous commercial, cultural and biodiversity objectives is very complex and as yet incompletely developed.

This book confirms that, with dedicated and persistent work, ecosystem restoration can be accomplished on Australian bauxite mine sites under both temperate and tropical conditions. However, while the avoidance of mining impact in highly diverse and ecologically sensitive areas is desirable, it is not always possible, and the very difficult political choices between economic, environmental and cultural values associated with uranium and iron mining are clearly presented. If radical physical and chemical disturbance is unavoidable, the challenge remains to bring mine sites to a state that – while possibly not identical to the pre-disturbance condition – meets an acceptable number of societal goals. While this book does not provide clear or even encouraging evidence of the resolution of some difficult conflicts over natural resource use, it is valuable in alerting readers to the challenges that remain for mining in ecologically sensitive environments.

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