Friday, July 19, 2024

Empowering local environmental initiatives: Frank Batini

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Australian Rural & Regional News asked some questions of Frank, answered below the article.

Frank Batini

Many years ago one of my tasks involved assessing rehabilitated mine sites to see if they had attained the agreed “completion criteria” and could be accepted back by Government for ongoing management. Mining operations included mineral and silica sand, bauxite, coal, nickel, gold and iron ore, located in the south-west of Western Australia, the Pilbara, Mid-West and Goldfields Regions.

Some mine pits are relatively shallow ( bauxite, silica and mineral sands), they cover extensive areas and are usually easier to rehabilitate, especially if the topsoil is removed and managed correctly. Others are deep open pits (coal, nickel, iron ore and gold), with tailings dams, waste dumps and little topsoil.

At the completion of mining the pit is left and a bund built around it as a safety precaution. The tailings dam are usually hypersaline and contain toxic chemicals, they are “capped” with 30-50cm of soil (at considerable cost) and sown with halophytic plants such as saltbush. Waste dumps are steep-sided (angle of repose) and liable to erosion, “berms” are cut at 5m vertical intervals and the top and sides planted with trees, shrubs and seed. The area treated is small (tens to hundreds of hectares), the cost of rehabilitation is high and the environmental and aesthetic benefits are, in my view, low.

This all takes place within a pastoral landscapes covering hundreds of thousands of hectares that are severely degraded by past and current overgrazing by domestic stock, feral animals and kangaroos. My Agency had experience rehabilitating repurchased pastoral properties at relatively low cost – by destocking, closure of artificial waters, feral animal control (trapping and baiting) and use of “right-way fire” in cooperation with indigenous rangers. Results can be spectacular, as can be seen from the photos.

The same site in 1989, while the area was grazed, and in 2007.
Photos: Mark Cowan, Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), now the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA)

As a number of mining companies had purchased the pastoral lease surrounding the mine to avoid neighbour problems, we suggested they should spend less on the mine site and concentrate on improving much larger areas on the pastoral lease. However the Mines Department intervened requiring the money be spent only the mining lease. The Pastoral Board also chipped in maintaining that a pastoral lease “must be used for grazing”.

Some years later, a mining proposal was rejected by the EPA and I was approached by the company for advice on an “environmental offsets package” that could be acceptable. It was readily apparent why the EPA was concerned – the mine site was adjacent to a major highway, in a prominent hilly landscape that contained a number of “threatened flora” as well as sites important to indigenous people. The four neighbouring properties were all being managed with conservation as the primary objective (by an Aboriginal corporation, a government agency and two environmental NGO’s).

I suggested the mining company set aside a very small levy (cents/ton exported) but amounting to between $15000-250000, based on the projected annual mining rates. The company and the four neighbours would set up a group that would nominate and fund suitable conservation projects on the adjacent lands. The neighbours would assist primarily in kind (labour, fencing, monitoring etc). The EPA accepted the company’s proposal and my involvement ceased.

The group, now known as Gunduwa (echidna) Regional Conservation Association has now been operational since 2014 and has an excellent website, well worth a visit.

Questions from Australian Rural & Regional News

ARR.News: You say, “This all takes place within a pastoral landscape covering hundreds of thousands of hectares that are severely degraded by past and current overgrazing by domestic stock, feral animals and kangaroos”. Surely, not all pastoral land is degraded? Likewise, pastoral use is not necessarily incompatible with conservation?

Frank Batini: Not all pastoral land is degraded, but these particular leases were, a combination of drought, overgrazing and management by sub-lessees. The Pastoral Lands Board is responsible for monitoring grazing pressure.

ARR.News: Are there mining leases that are or could be surrounded by working farms that could benefit from this environmental offsets model also?

Frank Batini: Only a few in WA but possibly more in Eastern States. I can’t see why not, as similar principles apply.

ARR.News: Could the once pastoral land be rehabilitated and put back into use as pastoral land?

Frank Batini: Yes, once restored it could be grazed again, preferably with less stock. However feral stock and kangaroos would still be a problem that needs control. Could use rotational grazing, spelling paddocks by closing some watering points and trapping ferals on others. Control of kangaroos can be problematic due to community attitudes.

ARR.News: What about the mine sites themselves, does rehabilitating the surrounding area mean there is more potential to rehabilitate the site itself?

Frank Batini: There is an obligation to do work on each mine site, the very least is to make them safe. I am arguing for a less  of a “Rolls Royce” treatment on a small area and spending the balance on the larger area, for greater benefit.

ARR.News: How can it ever be possible to rehabilitate major open cut mining pits?

Frank Batini: You can’t rehabilitate the pit. Some near Perth are used for rock climbing and absailing. The tailings dam and the waste dumps are costly to rehab, the camp site and ancillary areas are usually the easiest.  In several cases near Collie, the pits filled with fresh water and became recreational facilities. Most pits in WA fill with hypersaline water.

ARR.News: Do you know how widely this environmental offsets model is being used now in Western Australia?

Frank Batini: It is used by the EPA in WA for every project that has an environmental impact under both State and Federal Acts eg Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth).

ARR.News: Is there a risk mining companies could use environmental offsets to justify mining in an agricultural area and acquiring and closing down surrounding farms?

Frank Batini: I suppose a mine could purchase adjacent farmland and propose to plant it with trees for carbon capture as an “offset” for CO2 produced. Decisions would rest on advice from state EPA’s.

Note: the “levy” the miners agreed to pay in this case was unusual. Mines Dept are not keen on such arrangements. They want to collect ALL the royalties. However this money then goes into a big pot and is spent elsewhere by Treasury. What we managed to achieve was some expenditure in the local area/community with local decision-making. I think there should be more use made of this approach. The “levy” was very small in comparison with the royalty and all the other taxes imposed on the mine and staff eg personal taxation etc.

Frank Batini MSc (Oxon), BSc (UWA), Dip For (AFS), previously an Adjunct Professor of Environmental Science at Murdoch University has 60 years of  experience as a forester, environmental manager and consultant in the management of natural resources.

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