Newmont Ahafo Mine Reclamation….a project worth emulating to restore value for disturbed ecosystems

Edward (in blue helmet) receiving a briefing at one of the Ahafo reclamation sites

Gold mining and trading in Ghana started somewhere in the seventh century. The then-Gold Coast produced about 35% of the world’s total gold production between 1493-1600. Ghana’s mining industry accounts for 5-10% of GDP and 45% of total exports. In the face of the mining industry’s economic contribution, one cannot be oblivious of the gargantuan environmental cost to society.

Mining has been described in some quarters as a ‘search and destroy mission’. The search for precious minerals like gold, diamond and bauxite has devastating consequences on the environment, especially farm and forest lands as well as water-bodies when the extractive activity is not engineered properly.

Environmental degradation emanating from mining is a common spectacle across host mining areas in the country. Farmlands and forest reserves – running into thousands of hectares – as well as water-bodies have been destroyed. The situation has severely damaged these environmental variables, causing them to lose their socioeconomic value. The onus is now on the state to fund reclamation of destroyed farm and forest lands.

Illegal miners are the worst culprits in the web of vast environmental destruction. They had the leeway to mine without any obligation to reclaim the disturbed lands. Some other regularised mining firms (small-scale & large-scale) were also culpable of environmental destruction; they failed to follow proper reclamation programmes for restoring the disturbed lands.

Contrary to the awful mining practices that have ravaged the environment for centuries, Newmont Ahafo Mine has adopted a concurrent reclamation programme to recuperate the disturbed land within its concession in the Brong Ahafo Region.

The Ahafo Mine became part of the Newmont portfolio following the acquisition of Normandy in 2002. In 2003, Newmont brought its geologist to Ghana to evaluate the Ahafo property with the intention of selling it. After six months of work, the geologist, Cindy Williams, advised the company not to sell it – because of its rich ore deposit.

The revelation by the geologist informed an aggressive drilling programme by Newmont, moving Ahafo’s initial ore reserves from 3.3 million ounces to about 17 million ounces in 2006 when it poured the first gold. The company has since not looked back, producing five million ounces in the first 10 years.

Newmont Ahafo Mine Concurrent Reclamation Programme

Concurrently, the company rolled out its reclamation programme around 2009; ultimately, it is aimed at establishing a post-closure land-use scenario. The programme is to ensure that lands are left in a ‘stable condition’ that minimises long-term environmental impact and complies with regulatory requirements, legal commitments and Newmont’s standards across its operational areas in the world.

The concurrent reclamation (reclaiming inactive disturbed areas alongside active operation of the mine at large) comprises three main activities: civil works (placement of soil on areas stabilised with heavy equipment like bulldozers, hydraulic excavators and tipper-tucks); planting vegetative cover (grass and tree-seedlings) to restore vegetation; and maintenance of the established vegetation (erosion control measures, replacement of dead seedlings) to achieve desired final land use of afforestation and agriculture.

Prior to commencement of the mine in 2006, a baseline study of existing vegetation within the enclave of the mine was undertaken and a database of the plants and crops was created from which plant-selection for reclamation activities is done. The planted trees comprise indigenous and exotic species. They include Ofram, Akyee, Oprono (indigenous) and Mahogany, Glyricidia, Cassia (exotic).

Engineering process

Before construction works are carried out on a particular tract of land, the vegetation is cleared and growth media (topsoil & subsoil) salvaged and stockpiled for reclamation activities. Sources say a total of 1.0 metre of soil is placed on land being reclaimed, comprising 0.70m of subsoil and 0.30m of topsoil to facilitate growth of established vegetation. This ratio is believed to be mimicking the natural soil profile that contributes to the success of natural forest and agriculture practice.

The topography of reclaimed areas has been created in gentle slope hills. Mr. Anthony Loh, Environment Manager-Newmont Ahafo Mine, in an interview explained: “The design of waste rock dumps is done in accordance with mining & environmental regulations and permits granted to the mine or its operations. Within 20 to 25 kilometres away from the waste rock disposal facilities are hills which make the existing maximum waste dump heights blend in very well with the natural topography of the area”.

My understanding is that the period for reclaiming a particular piece of disturbed land varies, depending on the size, terrain/facility and closure concept for a specific area. An area is only deemed to have been reclaimed successfully when it passes the criteria (including land use success stage) specified in the Reclamation Security Agreement with the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).

Besides personnel of Newmont who are entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring success of the reclamation programme, consultants and researchers also provide additional support. Regulatory institutions such as the Minerals Commission and EPA periodically conduct mandatory inspections, coupled with the company’s annual ‘Beyond The Mine’ publication which keeps the public abreast on progress of the reclamation programme.

So far, Newmont Ahafo Reclamation has meticulously covered about 143 hectares out of reclaimable land disturbance of 1,143 hectares. Newmont spends an average of US$57,000 on every hectare of reclaimed land. Meanwhile, the company as at the close of December 2017 posted with the EPA a total reclamation bond of US$101,688,393.57 – covering both surface and underground operations.

The reclaimed land after all the processes will be relinquished to the government of Ghana, subject to certification for all the success criteria stipulated in the reclamation security agreement with the EPA.

Conclusion

I have a firm conviction that if similar reclamation agreements had been featured and implemented to the letter in all past mining contracts, the country would have not now be on the wrong side of the sword, whereby it is grappling with how to reclaim abandoned mining sites. Subsequently, it will be imperative to replicate the Newmont Ahafo Mine’s reclamation programme in all mining agreements to avert repetition of the environmental curse that has bedevilled mining in the country.