Mining has long been central to Ermelo. Take one of the roads away from the centre, past pretty brick bungalows and shops with signs in Afrikaans, and you can see for yourself. The country here, in the grasslands east of Johannesburg, is crisscrossed by pits. Slag hills heave up against the sky, and diggers and lorries grumble past. But if Ermelo is the soul of an industry that offers jobs to thousands – and provides South Africa with 14% of its coal – it has also felt catastrophe. In 2016, two local teenagers drowned in a disused mine on the outskirts of town, after rain filled the pit and the boys got into trouble on a warm September day.

Those twin deaths are obviously terrible – not least given the mine’s former owner apparently made no effort to fence the site off. But arguably even more shocking is the fact that there are literally thousands of similar places scattered all across South Africa. As government records concede, the Rainbow Nation hosts over 6,000 abandoned mines, each with the potential to snatch away life in a moment. Nor, of course, is drowning the only threat. From acid wastewater to the sudden combustion of exposed coal seams, South Africans are daily forced to contend with an avalanche of risks, all of which Human Rights Watch says can harm communities in “myriad ways”.

What is true for South Africa is true for us all. From the US to Australia, abandoned mines have long been a blight on landscapes and people, with many firms happy to dump their responsibilities once extraction ends. But if some mining companies continue to ignore abandoned operations, or else prioritise post-mining profits over all else, others are changing tack. Working with local communities, some firms are carefully rehabilitating exhausted mines, providing sustainable opportunities far into the future. And why not? The reputational and economic benefits of this approach, after all, are unassailable – even if lawmakers may still need to prod operators along.

The emperor’s new close

With their rickety carts and deep, mysterious shafts, disused mines have long been seared into the popular imagination. Study the statistics and this fascination makes a grim kind of sense. In the US, for instance, the Bureau of Land Management estimates there are around 500,000 such places – so many, indeed, that some aren’t even mapped. It’s the same story across the Atlantic. In England alone, there are around 13,000 abandoned mines, while Northern Ireland plays host to some 2,000 more. One 2011 study suggested there were perhaps a million disused mines worldwide, spanning everything from narrow Victorian shafts to sprawling pits occupying hundreds of acres.

Nor are these blights especially hard to understand. In a cut-throat industry predicated on profit, where extraction can last as little as five years, there has often been minimal incentive to reclaim a mine once operations end. That’s doubly true, says Meg Kauthen, given the inadequacy of many regulations. As the sustainability designer at Business for Development explains, even rich countries like the US have antiquated, poorly enforced mine-closure laws, none of which offer much protection to either “communities or ecosystems”. It goes without saying, Kauthen continues, that the situation is even more challenging in the developing world. Quite aside from events at Ermelo, she clearly has a point. As recently as December 2021, to give one example, 162 people died in a landslide at a jade mine in Myanmar – with many of the victims living in abandoned pits.

Nor are tailings crashes, of the sort that regularly hit Myanmar, the only menace to afflict unrehabilitated mining sites. Arguably the most insidious to residents involves toxic waste. To produce just one ounce of gold, operators must extract up to 91t of ore, while the mining process laces the remains with cyanide. It goes without saying that if this material isn’t disposed of carefully, it can wreak havoc long after a mine formally closes. In 2017, researchers found that Native Americans living near depleted uranium mines were more likely to suffer from kidney disease. A lack of planning can spark other long-lasting problems too. After trying to burn the landfill from an abandoned coal mine nearby, residents of one Pennsylvania town inadvertently set a fire that rages to this day. That may not sound so bad – until you realise the blaze began in 1962.

Of course, it’d be wrong to imply that post-mining rehabilitation is a totally unknown concept. On the contrary, major companies have reflected on the afterlife of their operations since at least the early 1980s. Yet, that hardly means the industry has nothing to work on. The problem, explains Greg Scanlan, has traditionally been one of focus. “The process was far more mechanical, less inclusive of the general community, employees and other social effects or opportunities,” explains Scanlan, head of health, safety and environment at OceanaGold. If this technique can bear economic fruit, such as by providing grazing land for livestock, it could also leave workers and their families destitute, as their sole source of income was snatched away with nothing to replace it. And though this style of rehabilitation precludes the worst environmental woes, focusing only on intensive pastoralism, as has sometimes been common in mining hotspots like Australia, can still leave the soil frail and unnutritious.

A gold standard

Visit Reefton and you might not even realise what came before. Framed by the soaring peaks of New Zealand’s South Island, this is a place of wondrous beauty. Over 800,000 new trees, from silver beech to manuka, have turned the place into a rich forest, while a nearby lake has attracted hosts of flapping waterfowl. Nor are birds and plants the only ones to thrive here. Thanks to a NZ$50,000 (£26,300) injection, the local visitors centre has been revamped too, promising a jump in tourism and new career opportunities for thousands.

You’ve probably guessed by now, but Reefton was not always this idyllic. For a decade until 2016, what looks like virgin territory was actually the Globe Progress Mine, a pit mining operation run by OceanaGold, a place that once stretched over 260 hectares and produced 610,000 ounces of precious metal. But before the first nugget of gold was ever mined, Scanlan and his team were resolved not to abandon the landscape they inherited. To a certain extent, Scanlan puts the marvels of this new Reefton down to forward planning. Calling closure an “iterative process” he emphasises that rock dumps were revegetated and pits reshaped as soon as mining ceased. Science, he might have added, has played a role too. Using natural chemical processes, OceanaGold has cut the levels of naturally occurring arsenic from Reefton’s water channels.

But beyond this technical wizardry, it’s clear that modern mine rehabilitation is equally based on thoughtful human relationships. “We work really strongly with the community,” Kauthen says of her own role at Business for Development, “understanding their needs, understanding the barriers and challenges that they face.” Though better tourist booths are certainly a start, Kauthen shows just how far this approach can go. Working with Glencore, Business for Development successfully helped grow winter wheat on remediated mining land in South Africa, along the way supporting over 14,300 smallholder farming families. And as Kauthen adds, choosing a remote corner of the country for her project is hardly accidental. At a time when many miners live in poor communities – and where 100 million ‘artisanal’ workers hack out a living informally – offering genuine employment opportunities postmining can be a real boon for desperate people.

In a similar vein, both Kauthen and Scanlan agree that mine rehabilitation can’t end five or even ten years after an operation packs up. In part, that’s a question of sustainability. Think of it like this: it’s all well and good for an operator to promise they’ll keep toxic waste from local streams. But what if they leave and a tailings mine breaks a decade later? Lucky, then, that staff at the Reefton site are careful to carry out continuous testing of nearby water sources, using data analysis to ensure they’re meeting environmental targets. It’s obvious the same principles are being enacted when it comes to community management too. Apart from offering ex-staff training in new lines of work, Scanlan says OceanaGold says they were “supported into local employment where they did not seek to move away from Reefton”.

Closed for business

Where Reefton has led, the rest of the world is quickly following. Aside from its work in South Africa, Glencore spent $30m in rehabilitating old Australian coal mines in 2020 alone. Staying in the Antipodes, Rio Tinto now employs ex-miners to work on rehabilitation and monitoring efforts. Beyond the obvious PR benefits of this work, Kauthen hints that even the most cynical mining concerns are increasingly conscious of what their shareholders expect. “The investor community is looking at ESG,” she says. “Mining companies need investors for current assets and new assets – they’re really improving how they manage them.” Her point is reflected by the numbers: with 63% of investors claiming they’d avoid mining companies that failed to meet their decarbonisation targets – according to Accenture’s Global Institutional Investor Study of ESG in Mining, 2022 – rehabilitation is rapidly becoming less a happy bonus and more a business necessity.

All the same, it’d be glib to suggest that we can expect every ex-pit to become an unkempt wilderness anytime soon. One challenge is if a mining company goes bankrupt. If it does, Kauthen wonders, who can be expected to shepherd a site towards a better tomorrow? Scanlan, for his part, offers something of a solution. “Most mining jurisdictions have government securities in place,” he says. “In general, these provisions – via bank guarantees or other security arrangements – are sufficient. But government regulations are important to support mine closure and ensure minimum closure standards are met by mining companies.” That last point, in fact, probably continues to be the biggest barrier to proper mine rehabilitation. Scanlan and Kauthen both stress that enforcement is improving, but corruption and vested interests persist. And though even countries like South Africa are making headway, publishing a new policy to formalise artisanal mining in March 2022, it may nonetheless be too late to prevent another Ermelo, or a tragedy like it.

This article first appeared in World Mining Frontiers magazine.