by Gregory Simpson

Mine closure: Agriculture to the rescue

Future economic value added through intergrated environmental resource optimisation and innovative land use application is crucial for life after mining, says Environmental Entrepreneur Fanus van Wyk.

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Van Wyk has a passion to unlock the limitless opportunities offered by the Green Economy that has yet to come to its full right. He has a desire to see things grow, to see lively and clean landscapes and as a result healthy economies, and to know that the vision, technology and application of their proposition has made a difference in people’s lives. He believes that substantial value can be generated through linking business, green tech, correct funding models and the vast environmental resources locked up in industrial land.

Formal qualifications are graduate and post-graduate degrees in Earth Science, Business Leadership and Administration, Bio-Entrepreneurship, and Corporate Innovation from NWU, UNISA, UP and STANFORD university respectively. He has worked as a corporate executive, academic, engineering consultant and advisor, and entrepreneur in the mining environmental services field and is currently CEO of the Agreenco Group.

Van Wyk is a frequently invited speaker and contributor at international conferences linking mine closure and environmental value creation, as well as innovation in advanced environmental engineering practices. He is a founding member and director of the Land Rehabilitation Society of Southern Africa.

His travels around the world over the past 25 years to study numerous applied mine environmental management practices and how to apply best practices in Southern Africa has yielded valuable results.

Where do you see Agreenco in the next five years?

I believe that a niche investment opportunity is hiding in a scalable environmental enterprise, which the Areenco’s Group of companies will grow in association with our key partnerships and social enterprises.

Agreenco will introduce environmental return on investment for the mining industry through remediation and climate smart solutions. We are the catalyst in returning land to economically active use, based on sound business principles. Our philosophy is based on long-term cost savings through environmental innovation for mines and we have a strong tech focus on the value that we provide for our customers.

Environment is often regarded only as a cost and liability for the mining industry.

At Agreenco, our innovation in the application of environmental informatics and land-end use technologies will unlock the vast potential of cost savings that the environment can offer a mining operation.

We understand that our solutions and projects must first and foremost make business sense and therefore our signature differentiation, the integration of environmental attributes as a resource that will contribute to the bottom-line of a mine, will continue to create value long after the mine has closed. Agreenco aims to:

  • Transform mined land into large scale energy crop farms, thereby treating mine water and reducing carbon and dust emissions to the atmosphere.
  • Be part of the generation of mines that create energy from waste streams and drastically reduce fossil fuel application.
  • Pioneer the application of mine closure funds towards viable and sustainable large-scale enterprises that will see mining towns flourish after mines leave and provide much needed employment opportunities.
  • Continue our market leadership in optimising biodiversity on mine owned land by combatting alien invasive plants.
  • Convert unproductive land and tailings landscapes into economical systems, as we view these areas from a position of potential.
  • Redefine the dust management methodology and associated operational cost for our customers.

Agreenco will therefore lead the advance into what we call the Environmental Control Infrastructure space where we will continue our success as a specialist contractor in partnership with our customers. Our company has also recently concluded a 51% ownership deal with Mr Josta Nkosi, providing us with a B-BBEE compliant scorecard to advance in the South African business landscape.

What are some of the innovative ways closed mines can be used?

Mines ready for closure offer substantial end-land use opportunity in the sense that it can be perfectly designed for a specific application. However, as with any start-up business, the mine will have to be subsidised for some years.

Conventionally the land will be restored to a state where there will be no nett environmental impact after mining, which is often called wilderness or rangeland. However, the output of the land cannot compete economically compared to the productivity of unaffected land—unless it is continually maintained. Technically the land can be considered a “write-off” and therefore, creative ways to “empower” the land need to be considered and budgeted for.

The market economics of an area, as well as the revenue potential of the land, should determine the most feasible (and agreed upon) end-land use solution and therefore site-specific business cases and the required scale of operations need to be considered in the final decision.

This can be closely correlated to soil depth, soil quality, water availability and rainfall, and distance to market.

Some of the end-land use options that can be considered for mines include: agricultural (pasture and fodder, cash crop applications, herding), remediation systems (water treatment, phyto remediation, water evaporation), energy (energy crops, solar farms, water energy systems, wood-for-fuel), industrial use (buildings and infrastructure use) and water storage or recreation facilities. Conservation opportunities have also been considered in the past. Agreenco has the track record to demonstrate which of these options will provide the best economic fit solution.

What are the benefits of using old mines for agriculture?

The “mine subsidised” agri-process can be applied to fund an economic pathway whereby the rehabilitated land is enabled to function as a substrate without the frequently required input costs.

Soil reconstruction after mining is one of the primary success factors to ensure the re-use potential of land. Conventionally, land is rehabilitated as a once-off effort to grassland and selective but ongoing maintenance is continually required, as the rehabilitated land is fragile and resilience to natural processes is extremely challenging. This continual maintenance requirement exhausts operational budgets to the frustration of industry.

Through purposefully designed landscapes and the following agri-rehabilitation processes, land can be continually “assisted” —not only to generate income that can be re-applied in the rehabilitation process but to develop “independence” from continual mine funding. Once the soil can function as a comparative economical unit and can fund the required inputs, the land can be deemed rehabilitated.

What is some of the engineering that goes into re-using mines?

The integration of various engineering disciplines are required to re-use mines including: geotechnical engineering which considers subsidence, landscape profile engineering which considers the final integration of the landscape to be suitable for whatever end-land use is selected, civil engineering which considers the storm water management from the land as well as agricultural engineering which considers the agricultural design of the selected end-land use applications operational requirements. These engineers are trained in the USA as Land Reclamation Engineers.

How fertile is the soil usually?

Soil fertility in reconstructed soils after placement is often a challenge as it is devoid of soil microbial activity and the carbon and nitrogen cycles in the soils need to be reactivated. Furthermore, the soils often tend to self-compact which leads to limiting ingress of water and oxygen into the soil. The soil “reactivation” process is therefore timely and not a once-off effort as is often perceived.

Soil management after placement therefore requires specialist inputs since the “topsoil”, as it is often referred to, cannot immediately function as an agricultural soil. Therefore, the agri-process would be ideal to continually reactivate soil processes and build up the soil carbon, which will allow for the required soil moisture balance that will sustain soil microbial colonies and in turn activate healthy and productive vegetation.

How best to include communities in clean-up/sustainability operations?

Communities should be regarded as the custodians of the land after mine closure, since they will beneficiate the land once the mine has left.

The entire spectrum of residents around the mines should be considered including mine town residents, mine workers and existing commercial and communal farmers. Since the soil reconstruction phase must be regarded as a specialised process, the reactivation period of the land needs to be managed in a meticulous and scientific way. Therefore, a specialist vehicle must be tasked as the catalysis to transform the land from mined land to agri-land.

After the land rehabilitation process period has elapsed, which can take from 5 - 15 years, a Land Rehabilitation Trust can typically be formed where either the contractor, communities, co-operatives, commercial farmers or other custodian stakeholders can play a role to care for the land in a sustainable way. Once the land is ready, wealth can be created on many accounts for the local community providing that the business model is sustainable.

What are some of the key services that Agreenco offers for mine closure?

Agreenco offers the complete value chain of services to achieve the outcomes of land rehabilitation or land “conversion” projects from concept through to the operational farm management of the land. These value chain items include:

  • Land engineering design for agri-rehabilitation projects
  • Mine water treatment for irrigation application
  • Agricultural potential assessments for mined land
  • Farmland business models for mines considering trade-off analysis of best cost and revenue solutions
  • Implementation of agri-rehabilitation projects including bioenergy projects, conventional farming projects or remediation and carbon solutions
  • Monitoring and management of closure throughout the life of the project including environmental metrics and land performance.

What sort of specialist engineering knowledge do you need to properly close a mine?

  • Business modelling and trade-off analysis skills
  • Geotechnical engineering
  • Agricultural engineering
  • Agricultural and environmental economics
  • Civil engineering
  • Environmental and water engineering.

In terms of re-skilling for agriculture, how transferable are mining skills?

Agriculture is a passion and patience and dedication, as well as an appreciation of natural and non-exact outcomes, are primary traits required of a farmer. I believe that the agri-skills are transferrable although the revenue timelines and business model mindset of the two industries are vastly different. Since agriculture and mining are both operationally robust, the attitude of excellence in operations can be cross referenced. The fact that the remuneration scales are vastly different in the industries also needs to be considered. Knowledge in mechanical and maintenance applications is beneficial.

 

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