School of Science
The use of reference sites for establishing closure criteria in areas disturbed by mining activities is common practice. ‘Reference’ sites are those considered to be largely unimpacted by anthropogenic activity (retaining desirable natural characteristics), and occurring near disturbed sites. Sites are considered rehabilitated when their biophysical condition approximates that of the reference site. However, this approach often creates impossible or unrealistic targets for miners seeking to close rehabilitated lands. For example, reference sites are often limited in availability (or non-existent) due to impacts by other land uses. Further, any available reference sites might not be realistic matches for the rehabilitated sites – in many rivers (for example) it is questionable whether sites which superficially appear similar are actually ecologically similar.
We propose a more achievable approach to mine closure by comparing the bio-physical characteristics of rehabilitated sites to overall ecosystem variability, rather than specific target reference sites. Using multivariate ordination - a classic data clustering technique in ecology - as an applied management tool allows managers to measure how different their rehabilitated sites are from co-occurring sites, and how the rehabilitated sites are tracking over time. Our approach also identifies the key biological, physical, and chemical parameters that potentially differentiate a rehabilitated site and, therefore, the necessary actions to bring a rehabilitation site within range of normal river variability. Further, this conceptual paper introduces two unique case studies used to develop the model, involving microbes as indicators of rehabilitation progress and mine water impact in Australian rivers. The challenges and benefits associated with implementation of this approach from the practitioners’ perspectives are discussed. The outcome of this new approach to closure will allow miners to create realistic and definable targets for relinquishing rehabilitation land in already modified landscapes, potentially simplifying closure and project approvals.