From an eagle’s nest view in the craggy snow-capped Mid Pyrenees, above the small French town of Auzat, you can look down on the matchstick figures of elite athletes pounding the all-weather running track of an internationally rated sports complex in the valley below.

Located a lofty 737 metres above sea level, the sports centre is a magnet for professional sportsmen and women seeking mid-altitude training in the remote but picturesque town. Among the centre’s extensive attractions spread over a seven hectare site are a stadium, football and rugby training grounds on all-weather synthetic pitches, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, a fitness trail, gym, indoor climbing wall, health clinic and more. The facilities are well used by both the community and tourists. It’s a sight to gladden the heart; human endeavour played out against a landscape of natural beauty.

Rewind a mere decade and the view of the same spot from above would have shown a very different scene. Auzat was home to an out-moded aluminium smelter on the last legs of production. The plant faced inevitable closure by the then owner, Pechiney, and the possibility of redundancy for its 200-plus employees.

A period of industrial unrest culminated in the workforce walking out from the site in March 2003, and the smelter was never opened again. The town was left with the prospect of economic decline – and a large, derelict industrial site requiring careful decommissioning.

The Eden Project-Rio Tinto

The Eden
Project-Rio Tinto

Cradled in the cavity left behind by a disused china clay pit in Cornwall, UK, the Eden Project is a beacon of exemplary mine closure practice.

Cradled in the cavity left behind by a disused china clay pit in Cornwall, UK, the Eden Project is a beacon of exemplary mine closure practice.

Drawing around one million international visitors a year to its “global garden”, the attraction, which has boosted the local economy to the tune of over £1 billion since it opened in 2001, highlights our dependence on the natural world.

Soon after it opened, the Eden Project formed a partnership with Rio Tinto that was to run for ten years and celebrated a common aim – to explore ways of making a greater contribution towards sustainable development. A priority of the partnership was to develop initiatives to encourage the mining industry to perform better during the active life of mines – and afterwards.

Together the partnership kick-started a body called the Post-Mining Alliance, providing it with funding and expertise. Now financed by a range of sources including industry, public sector and foundations, the Alliance exists to explore and implement positive outcomes from mine closure. It has opened up international dialogue on mining legacy and developed new techniques for creative community engagement in post-mining areas around the world. It was also instrumental in the publication of 101 Things to do with a Hole in the Ground, a coffee table book that showcases a gallery of activities now thriving on old mine sites – from underground cheese stores to opera houses, motor racing tracks to green energy plants, and, of course, Eden’s very own giant greenhouses.

Image: The Eden Project, in Bodelva, Cornwall, is built in a disused china clay mine.

What we leave behind impacts our future licence to operate

Bill Adams, general manager, Legacy and Closure

Planning from the outset

It’s just such a scenario that responsible, sustainable mining and metals production seeks to avoid through closure planning.

At Rio Tinto, closure is a core business function. The approach is to build this in from the outset – in other words what happens at the end of the life of a mine (or smelter, refinery, mill or manufacturing site) is planned for while it is still in gestation.

Primary responsibility for closure planning and execution lies with Rio Tinto’s operating businesses. At a corporate level, the operations are supported by a central Legacy Management team, based in Salt Lake City, which sets the global Closure standard. This group also puts in place dedicated teams whose job it is to develop, review and implement closure plans for legacy operations that have moved into the closure phase. The team also provides review of business unit closure plans.

It’s all about having “boots on the ground”, according to Bill Adams, Rio Tinto’s general manager of Legacy and Closure. The teams are multidisciplinary, reflecting the wide range of considerations that have to be taken into account, and so include specialists in community relations, environmental management, human resources, finance, legal and engineering. The emphasis is also on deploying local expertise wherever possible.

Reputational impacts

Closure planning needs to be a highly collaborative process. Stakeholders, including employees, landowners, local communities, governments and NGOs, are all involved in the decision-making that goes on in preparing for what happens after activity ceases – it’s not just about what happens to the physical site but also the social and economic impact of shutting down, as the Auzat “before” case clearly demonstrates.

Getting stakeholder participation is an important step in the planning process. Closure plans are developed in consultation with local stakeholders early in the mine life so that they are well understood and acceptable to all.

Once a closure plan has been agreed and the mine is up and running, the plan will be reviewed every few years, and this is stepped up as the end approaches. The finances are assessed and updated each year to make sure that plans can be adequately covered and fulfilled. Some aspects of closure may happen during a mine’s lifetime, say, for example, with progressive rehabilitation of disturbed areas and risk-based remediation of contaminated sites – meaning that there is less restoration work to be done when the mine closes.

Speaking at a conference on Mine Closure hosted in September 2013 by the Eden Project in Cornwall, with which Rio Tinto has had a ten year partnership focusing especially on mine regeneration and closure (see sidebar), Bill Adams outlined the Rio Tinto philosophy on closure, saying: “We don’t close mines all that often, but when we do, what we leave behind shapes not only our reputation as an industry, but also impacts our future licence to operate.”


industrial legacy sites

Good stewardship

Yet this admirably careful planning process is not a given for operational sites that Rio Tinto inherits through mergers and acquisitions. Often a newly-acquired portfolio includes sites that are already closed (like Auzat, bought with the Pechiney purchase by Alcan in 2004, and consequently passing to Rio Tinto in 2007) or are still running but simply no longer economically viable.

For these “legacy” operations, the same closure principles have to be applied, regardless of the site’s history and without the benefit of long term planning. “It is in our interest to decommission safely and remediate them,” says Bill, “making the land available for beneficial reuse as quickly as possible.”

In most cases this will mean first dealing with contamination, capping the land, handling revegetation and generally cleaning up the site. “Even if the properties are sold on, we still retain environmental liability for the land or water bodies,” he adds. “What we are doing is coming in and being a good steward.

“We also seek opportunities for socioeconomic and environmental regeneration. Our reputation depends on our doing this responsibly and effectively. We don’t just walk away from these sites.”

Preserving biodiversity at Punakaiki

Preserving biodiversity
at Punakaiki

In 2000, Rio Tinto inherited the only breeding colony of the Westland Petrel, an endangered sea bird.

In 2000, Rio Tinto inherited the only breeding colony of the Westland Petrel, an endangered sea bird.

That year, the company acquired Westland Ilmenite as part of North Ltd, along with a short-lived and abandoned mineral sands mining project on New Zealand’s South Island.

Punakaiki, the mining site, sits at one end of a coastal plain stretching from the mountains down to the sea. Originally covered in dense forestation – including New Zealand’s only native palm, the nikau – the site and surrounding area had been largely cleared for mining and farming over the last century.

Rio Tinto came on board committed to achieving a sustainable use of the land and to responding to feedback from the community, who suggested that it be a nature reserve. The resulting partnership between Rio Tinto, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation and Conservation Volunteers New Zealand is a fine example of multi-sector co-operation.

Thousands of volunteer hours and the establishment of a plant nursery on site have led to gradual restoration of indigenous plant life and, earlier this year, the 100,000th native tree was planted. Walkways and hides are to be built with the aim of attracting more visitors – and hopefully boosting the local economy.

As for the Westland Petrel, or taiko as it is known to the Maoris, the restoration of more of its natural habitat for breeding means that numbers are steadily on the increase, with an estimated population of about 20,000 birds and 4,000 breeding pairs in the area.

Restoration of indigenous plant life at Punakaiki.

New frontiers

Around the world, Rio Tinto currently has 13 old mine sites in closure, some of which ceased operating as much as 20 years ago. Just three of these originally had closure plans in place; others were inherited and can be categorised as “legacy closures”.

One exceptional case has been maintained in a closed state since it shut down in 1927. Described by Bill as a “wild west ghost town”, Ryan Camp, a former boron mine inherited by Rio Tinto when it bought US Borax in the 1960s, is located in true frontier-land on the fringe of the Death Valley National Park in California. The camp – where much of the infrastructure, including a cookhouse and narrow-gauge railway, are still intact – has been donated to the Death Valley Conservancy. It is being preserved and partially restored in order to celebrate and protect its valuable heritage for future generations.

Then there are around 200 other industrial legacy sites, resulting from mining operations and aluminium manufacturing and production facilities. Breathing new life into these properties depends on engagement with the community, especially in working towards economic and social regeneration. In some cases, such as the site of a former smelter at Steg in Switzerland where buildings have been decommissioned, dismantled or redeveloped and sold to new businesses, there are now more people employed than were at the time of closure.

“None of this happens overnight,” adds Bill. “You can’t turn a legacy site around in six months; it will take several years.”

A boost for Burntisland

A boost for

Set in rolling Scottish countryside, with sea views, maturing trees, waterways and a wildlife area, all within an easy commute of central Edinburgh, the new Burntisland residential area ticks many boxes as a desirable place to live.

Set in rolling Scottish countryside, with sea views, maturing trees, waterways and a wildlife area, all within an easy commute of central Edinburgh, the new Burntisland residential area ticks many boxes as a desirable place to live.

So far, 234 of a planned 360 houses have been built and the town is prospering.

Hard to imagine now, that a decade ago, this was the site of a declining alumina refinery. Owned by Alcan (acquired by Rio Tinto in 2007), the plant closed in November 2002. There had been no planning for, and little expectation of total closure, leading to disbelief and anger among the 400-strong workforce when it was announced.

Decommissioning the site was a complex process, but a year on, plant and equipment was dismantled and sold on to Russia. Much consultation with all interested parties – the local community, developers, contractors and regulators – led to the positive decision to develop the area for housing and the site was sold in 2004. Critical to the success of the project was having a sympathetic developer on board, who made sure that building work did not disrupt remedial works.

In tandem, former employees were offered re-employment and re-training support, and a high percentage were successful in finding new work. Meanwhile, the new housing estate has invigorated the town’s economy as well as transforming the landscape.

Two kilometres up the road, a second site, Whinnyhall, which was used by the refinery for landfill, has been restored and turned into a wildlife and recreational area.

The site of the former alumina refinery has been turned into desirable housing.

Picking up the baton

This was certainly the case in Auzat. The smelter formally closed in November 2003 – some employees were redeployed to other plants; others took early retirement or were made redundant. It was not until nearly two years later that demolition began. By then Alcan had taken over Pechiney and pledged funds to remediate the site and to create new jobs in the area. However, bad feeling among the community after the abrupt closure made for protracted and sometimes controversial discussions over the site’s future.

Rio Tinto was to pick up the baton after its acquisition of Alcan in 2007. Eventually, thanks to careful consultation across the community and interested parties, a compromise was reached. It was agreed that moving existing sports facilities from the other side of the river to the former smelter site – and building them to an international standard – would be the ideal use for the capped land.

This freed up a prime spot of non-impacted land that could in the future be developed into a large hotel complex should visitor levels increase as a result of the new sports centre, with the potential for bringing further prosperity to the area. La Plaine des Sports opened for business in May 2011; eight years after closure the metamorphosis of Auzat was complete. Rio Tinto continues to own the land it sits on, which is let on a long-term lease to the town, allowing the Group to have a say in any further development and thus safeguarding its reputation.

From the mountain ridges high above the town it is also possible to make out a lasting legacy of the region’s long association with the aluminium industry; glinting in the sunlight, Le Chemin de l’alu, a two-kilometre aluminium walkway constructed by former smelter workers, weaves its way through the town past art installations, among them a three-metre slab of aluminium and machinery preserved from the smelter, to a heritage centre which is home to a permanent exhibition on Auzat’s aluminium story.