Mackay Conservation Group is calling for a time limit on mine mothballing.
Mackay Conservation Group is calling for a time limit on mine mothballing. Kelly Butterworth

Calls for crackdown on mines dodging environmental duties

What to know:

  • There is currently no limit on the amount of time a mine can be on care and maintenance mode.
  • There are currently 15,000 abandoned mines in Queensland
  • $6.2 million of taxpayer money has been dedicated to rehabilitating them this financial year.
  • If a mining company goes broke while on care and maintenance mode, it is likely to join the abandoned mines register.
  • The cost of rehabilitation may then fall back on taxpayers.
  •  A bill designed to enhance to obligations of industrial site owners and related parties is likely to be debated in parliament this week.


Chain of responsibility bill

MINE owners and related parties could soon face stricter obligations to rehabilitate sites, if a bill makes it through parliament this week.

The Environmental Protection (Chain of Responsibility) Amendment Bill was introduced March 16 and is intended for debate this week.

If it's successful it would allow enforcement tools, called environmental protection orders, to be issued to a party with a relevant relationship to a company in financial difficulty.

If they then fail to comply, the department of environment and heritage protection would be able to recover the costs of taking action.

The Bill would also require financial assurances to be added to a transferred environmental authority if that authority previously had no financial assurance provisions and financial assurance was considered necessary.

Basically, it would mean if an industrial site was transferred to a new owner, but had no rehabilitation bond paid, that would then become a requirement in most cases.

 Finally, the Bill will ensure that authorised officers have powers to access sites no longer subject to an environmental authority (for example, in the event of insolvency).

But further calls have been made for processes involved with industrial site rehabilitation to be reviewed.


Calls to introduce time limit

AN ENVIRONMENTAL group is calling on the State Government to enforce a maximum time that companies can mothball mines, to spare taxpayers the burden of eventually having to pay for the work.

Mackay Conservation Group spokesman Peter McCallum said companies were currently not required to begin rehabilitation work until the mine site became "available".

But he said there was no legal definition about when mine sites no longer in use would reach this status, with some sites sitting dormant for years with no rehabilitation work occurring.

 The Department of Environment and Heritage Protection said it is not aware of any plans to introduce a limit to the amount of time a mine can be in care and maintenance.

A Mines Department spokesman said the mothballing of a mine did not diminish the owners' responsibility to carry out rehabilitation work once it re-opened or formally closed.

But with falling coal prices, Mr McCallum said he was more concerned the owner might go bankrupt.

"Even with large companies, there is always a risk they will go broke (and never do the work)," he said.

Once a company with mothballed mines goes bankrupt, rehabilitation work falls to the State Government or land owners.

Mining companies with a good track record also tend to be granted a discount on the rehabilitation bond, on up to 30%.

But Mr McCallum was concerned if these mines went bust, there may not be adequate money in the discounted bond to cover the rehabilitation costs.

 The department of environment spokeswoman said the government made a commitment to investigate 'the expansion of upfront rehabilitation bonds for resource companies to fully fund long term rehabilitation activities'.

The department is now analysing current financial assurance arrangements and mining rehabilitation performance to ensure these are consistent with this commitment.

This work is proceeding in close cooperation with the Queensland Treasury and relevant agencies.


Concerns about number of mines abandoned

There are 15,000 abandoned mines in Queensland, 3500 of which are on State Government land.

It is believed there are about 10 Queensland coal mines on care and maintenance mode, compared to "a handful" in 2006.

In the 2015-2016 budget the state government committed $6.2 million to abandoned mine management activities, which includes rehabilitation.  

However there are only "a small number" of abandoned mines in the Bowen Basin because small mines have "generally become part of larger operations".

A Peabody Energy spokeswoman has said their filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy in America will have no impact on the rehabilitation of their Wilkie Creek mine, currently on care and maintenance.

"Since 2014, Peabody has rehabilitated 333 hectares at Wilkie Creek and the team is currently undertaking cattle grazing demonstration studies with local landholders," she said.

" At the end of 2015 the total area of completed rehabilitation at Wilkie Creek was 515 hectares which represents 95% of available land."