This has alerted national and local governments and regulators to apparent weaknesses in the oversight of the surface mining industry and has also resulted in calls to strengthen regulation and enhance guarantees and bonds to ensure that such failures do not recur.
The establishment or reassertion of a robust regulatory regime to tackle this issue would ensure greater transparency around the closure and reinstatement of worked-out sites and help restore public confidence in the mining industry.
It could, however, also bring unintentional consequences by creating additional financial pressures on developers who are already operating in highly competitive markets and a sector that increasingly prioritises non-carbon technologies.
In any case, the cost of meeting regulatory and restoration requirements can quickly mount up without necessarily bringing the anticipated environmental benefits. In response, developers are looking to strategies that offer realistic and cost-efficient alternatives for meeting these liabilities.
Challenges for developers
The recently published National Planning Framework (NPF3) and Scottish Planning Policy both allude to requirements for a stronger regulatory regime linked to effective restoration and aftercare.
Early indications are that, where councils have undertaken reviews of existing regulatory practice, key priorities for future enactment include:
Verification and enforcement of planning conditions and Section 75 agreements;
Regular monitoring and reporting of progress of extraction and restoration by an independent compliance assessor, funded by the developer;
Review of mining progress plans and restoration on site prior to determination of applications for extensions or new extraction sites; and
Re-examination and probable inflation of restoration guarantees or bonds, including potential variation of bond levels over the life of sites.
This will inevitably influence site selection and operation, but will also affect restoration, aftercare or post-closure monitoring and management, with impacts on each development’s commercial viability and profitability.
In anticipation, a number of developers are re-running economic models for their operations, re-evaluating current sites and future coaling operations, and considering ways to mitigate the effects of commercial and regulatory pressures. This has led, in some circumstances, to the abandonment or early closure of uneconomic sites, or portions of sites, and scaling back of prospecting.
Making restoration and post-closure more manageable
Clearly, a key component of the increased regulatory and cost pressures on mines arises from restoration and post-closure liabilities. In an ideal world, restoration would be cost-effective, require minimal aftercare and post-closure monitoring, and would have limited medium-to-long-term liabilities.
With a few notable exceptions, however, the coal industry has historically given only limited attention to the full range of possibilities presented by this phase in the life of sites, often viewing it as a planning requirement or adjunct rather than an intrinsic part of development that can offer potential for sustainable environmental and social benefits, as well as possible commercial opportunities.
Restoration tends to take one of two routes:
1. Traditional mine restoration prioritises agricultural production or forestry, both of which generally demand wholesale reinstatement of pre-existing ground levels, extensive remediation of what is often a poor substrate following infilling and soiling works, and secondary treatments including additional drainage works. Not uncommonly there will be low levels of contamination at sites with consequent ongoing monitoring requirements and liabilities.
2. Restoration for ecological diversification, while offering an alternative that responds more readily to prevailing ground conditions and the potential for credible environmental benefits, requires specialist inputs and monitoring. In some circumstances it may involve long term management liabilities unless the site is taken on by a competent conservation organisation. In the absence of this ongoing management, the viability of newly-created habitats is doubtful.
Given the often problematic and expensive nature of existing adopted approaches to restoration and after use, Environ has established two complementary strategies to bring together the benefits of both these routes. One involves adopting good restoration practices to ensure the cost-efficient reinstatement of sites and greater public and regulator confidence.
The second concerns a more flexible approach to the concept of restoration that could deliver more diverse environmental benefits, while still providing developers with a mechanism for managing costs and liabilities.
Both strategies should be run together for greatest effect, with examples of the measures involved including:
Avoiding site designs requiring expensive engineered solutions including geotechnical works;
Designing operational phases to ensure phased restoration and closure of sites, thereby staggering restoration expenses, achieving early restoration of the site, and early completion of monitoring and aftercare periods;
Adopting best practice in respect of soil handling and designated haulage routes to ensure that site substrates are retained in good condition, minimising the need for expensive secondary treatments and remediation measures;
Using competent and experienced contractors capable of meeting specialist restoration objectives, thereby achieving both cost-efficiencies and better quality results;
Producing detailed annual restoration and aftercare plans, in consultation with the local planning authority, to target resources for the restoration work and provide reassurance regarding quality and progress;
Regular reviews of development proposals in conjunction with technical support groups, community liaison groups and the local planning authorities to develop more cost-effective and responsive proposals that would reflect circumstances and conditions at the site while achieving diversification of restoration solutions and providing increased environmental and social gains;
Collaborating with neighbouring developers on restoration proposals to achieve greater coherence and potential cost savings; and
Considering proposals that would provide potential for medium-to-long-term diversification of the local rural economy through tourism, recreation and initiatives for new/facilitation of local industry. For example, creating a site infrastructure capable of supporting a new use such as onshore wind or solar power generation. This would include considering potential mechanisms for generating revenue streams that would support the long-term management of restored sites.
In an industry under pressure, greater attention to environmental and social improvements may often be seen as a luxury. But in the context of the changes to regulation, these approaches do offer developers the opportunity to meet likely requirements in a more practical and sustainable way.
By Bob Bainsfair and Catherine Leaf, managers at Environ, an international consultancy which works with clients to help resolve their most demanding environmental and human health issues. The firm’s interdisciplinary network of more than 1400 staff operates from 92 offices in 21 countries.