When things go WRONG: A lesson in lead mining

In March a two year environmental saga went full circle in Western Australia, with Rosslyn Hill Mining returning to operations after years of disruptions.

The story of how Rosslyn shut down involved a number of false leads and overreactions, but it also highlighted some fundamental flaws in the company's actions, flaws that eventually forced exports from the group to a standstill.

After years of regulatory hurdles and investigations Rossyln (formerly known as Magellan Metals) is back on its feet and ready to start exporting from Perth again.

But the legacy of the environmental problems it ran into in 2011 have helped form its new operating licence, and for the wider industry Rosslyn's problems stand as an important example of what happens when you don't get environmental management right. 

Beginning of the end

​While lead mining will always attract its fair share of criticism the real trouble for Magellan started in 2010 when lead carbonate was detected in mud on the bottom of a shipping container in Fremantle.

It followed similar issues at the company's previous port operations at Esperance in 2006-07, where contamination led to significant environmental damage.

In both cases export containers were packed with lead carbonate from the company's Wiluna site in the WA Goldfields, and a media storm was quick to erupt after the second breach in late 2010.

When the breach was first reported environment minister Bill Marmion said he had "completely lost faith" in Magellan's ability to operate safely, and while the company shut down operations in order to investigate, there were immediately calls for the miner to shut its doors indefinitely.

At the time Fremantle Greens member Adele Carles called on the state government to revoke Magellan's licence, and said the export of lead carbonate through Fremantle should be banned altogether.  

"Magellan has proved that it cannot handle this dangerous product safely," she said.

In a sign of how quickly environmental breaches can derail a resources project, the storm that erupted in 2011 was the start of an on-again, off-again operation for Magellan that would last years. 

Hit and miss

In late 2010 Magellan was issued with a stop work order in relation to readings that indicated there may have been airborne lead particles in a number of sealed containers shipped to Fremantle.

But in early January 2011 an independent review and an investigation by the EPA found the initial readings had been inaccurate, and baseline levels had not actually been exceeded.

The findings were good news for Magellan and the wider public, but the company did not escape the review unscathed, with regulators finding Magellan had not been properly auditing or reporting some aspects of its transportation.

It wasn't a perfect record, but it fell well short of the findings some of the company's critics had foreshadowed, and the results highlighted how tenuous a mine's operation can be if solid evidence can't immediately be found to enforce its social contract.

Nevertheless after a thorough investigation regulators were again confident the company could operate within its guidelines and exports from the Wiluna project were brought back online with tough new conditions.

The saga didn't end there however, with the company registering another scare only several months later.

In April 2011, less than two months after the Government had given Magellan permission to re-start exports, the company again detected lead in mud stuck to the bottom of a shipping container in Fremantle.

After this report Magellan's parent company Ivernia took the matter into its own hands, placing the Wiluna mine into care and mainten­ance and reducing its workforce from 220 staff and contractors to around 40.

Up until this point Magellan's operations had been a fast changing affair but once the mine was placed in voluntary care and maintenance it stayed static for almost a year and a half before plans to re-start were announced in late 2012. 

Lessons learned

Magellan's plan to re-start came to a head earlier this year, with the newly re-branded Rosslyn Hill announcing a fresh operating licence and a​ plan for exports through Fremantle.

Under the new plan the EPA said a number of "strict conditions" would manage Rosslyn's operations, including the use of an independent inspector to test all concentrate bags and shipping containers.

An emergency response plan, a $5 million bank guarantee, and increased third party scrutiny of its operations also formed part of the new deal.

And while there's no doubt Rosslyn deserved increased scrutiny given its history of slip ups and infringements, perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned from this saga was the need to go above and beyond the current regulations.

If miners want to ensure a stable environment it's not just regulators they have to please, and environmental and health management is not as simple as just adhering to licence conditions and passing monitoring tests.

Ivernia said as much in an investor briefing last year.

"Doing a good job in protecting the environment and the community from harm is not enough," it said.

"If the community does not see the value of lead then they will not be willing to accept the perceived risk."

More than simply passing a benchmark, Ivernia said good environmental management was about building solid and trusting relationships with the community, government, and regulators.

Keeping stakeholders informed about the business and its importance was also essential, and without these relationships misinformation can reign supreme.

"Lead continues to have reputation issues and is suffering from uninformed mythologies," Ivernia said.

"The majority of the community do not see lead as essential to modern life, as they are unaware that without lead their cars cannot be started and their mobile phones and computers would be less reliable."