Mining is an important economic activity in Europe, supplying raw materials to strategic development sectors such as construction, infrastructure and ceramics and tiles. But this activity has a serious social and environmental impact: extracting minerals affects soil quality, biodiversity, water resources and the landscape.
Regional, national and European legislation regulates liability for the restoration of mine-affected areas. The EU has introduced several directives that ensure that mining activities do not pose a risk to the environment, human health or safety – namely, Directive 2004/35/EC that focuses on the prevention and remedying of environmental damage, which has been extended to cover extractive waste from mines and quarries, as well as Directive 2006/21/EC on the management of waste from extractive industries.
In the Valencia region, 85% of the mines are found in forests. The restoration activities implemented so far have shown that traditional techniques are not sufficiently effective. Severe erosion problems and subsequent sedimentation in riverbeds, negative landscape impact and low forestry biodiversity after the implementation of mine restoration projects emphasises the need for new approaches. The situation is especially serious in Mediterranean areas due to marked seasonal weather changes. Moreover, there is a need for technical tools to support public administrations and professionals to better select efficient techniques and thus develop sustainable solutions for mine-affected areas.
The general objective of the LIFE TECMINE project was to improve mine restoration activities in Mediterranean forest areas by testing innovative and highly transferable restoration techniques. The project aimed to focus on the restoration of an area formed in the Early Cretaceous period that occupies more than 35% of the Valencia region; similar areas are widespread across Europe. Specifically, during the project the sand mine called “Fortuna” would be restored. It was exempt for restoration according to the existing legislation.
The techniques to be tested by the project aimed to address the following environmental issues:
- Lack of landscape integration. A technique traditionally used for landscape integration of rock slopes in roads and highways (the talus royal technique) will be used to restore the upper area of the mine (5.7 ha);
- Hydrological problems. In order to reduce erosion and improve water quality when runoff from the mine flows into natural rivers, the GEOFLUV method, a technique for geomorphological restoration will be used to restore the platform area (4.5 ha) and the pond area (1.9 ha);
- Low biodiversity and vegetation cover. The project will seek new solutions by means of a new design of micro-catchments and additional treatments with organic matter; and
- Lack of sufficient knowledge about the requirements of the implementation of these techniques. In order to better understand techniques and with the aim of defining the limits of their applicability and the thresholds of success, a thorough monitoring will be carried out from the start of the project.
The TECMINE project team proved the efficiency of new restoration techniques in Mediterranean forest areas affected by mining activities. The project was pioneering in that it applied geomorphological restoration processes in Europe. This type of restoration involves designing and building landforms to replicate the natural conditions before mining or other industrial operations started. The project positioned itself as a reference at national and international levels for these techniques, paving the way for a move from “mining activities rehabilitation” towards “mining activities restoration”.
The project team completed the restoration work at a demonstration mining concession in Ademuz, in the Valencia region of Spain, in 2019, and then focused on monitoring, replication and dissemination activities. The 2-3 years of monitoring demonstrated that mine restoration was satisfactorily achieved, with results clearly better than those for conventional restorations at similar overall cost.
Specifically, the project has shown that geomorphological restoration greatly improves landscape integration and significantly reduces erosion, thereby creating favourable conditions for the development of plant communities and reducing the flow of sediments to the rivers. Furthermore, the reforestation methodology that followed, based on a meticulous selection of species and individuals according to the different environments, and the careful preparation of the planting holes (e.g. by the creation of micro-catchments and use of organic amendments), has provided excellent results regarding plant survival. Nonetheless, post-disturbance ecosystems require long periods to recover and stabilise. The monitoring results also highlighted the importance of taking into account geomorphology, soil and vegetation during mine restoration. The knowledge acquired has been very useful in defining basic requirements for replication, as well as in identifying the main limitations.
Among the main lessons learnt were the importance of planning mine restoration in parallel to the exploitation plan; the need to take care of the soil, since it is a key element of the entire process; acknowledging dynamic natural processes and, hence, adapting ecological restoration to them rather than impeding them; the importance of properly handling water run-off through the entire restoration design; the use of colluvium as a key element to ensure the success of the restoration; the importance of ensuring the prompt development of a vegetal cover to control erosion processes; and the need for a higher ambition for the selection of the species and of the quality of the individual plants to be used for the reforestation.
The project team created the First National Network for the Restoration of Mines and Quarries; elaborated technical guidelines on mine restoration; and provided high-quality training and technical support. The total surface area restored during four replications developed during the project (18.5 ha) led to further interest in the mine restoration techniques. Moreover, given the excellent results achieved, Valencia Regional Government earmarked €2.5 m from the EU Next Generation Funds for replications in mining areas in the region, to be executed post-LIFE. The knowledge and experience gained will contribute to updating mine restoration regulations in the Valencia region.
To disseminate their work, the project team gave presentations in more than 20 technical and scientific fora, in 17 educational centres (including secondary schools, universities and professional training institutions), and during a Final Event. They developed 17 local dissemination events; published 2 scientific papers; produced 3 teaching units; disseminated through an ad-hoc educational campaign at a regional level; created one didactic itinerary in “La Fortuna” mine and a photo exhibition; and also produced 2 promotional videos, 9 newsletters, 2 brochures and several merchandising products. At the end of the project, by means of these dissemination activities, the beneficiaries estimated that some 5 183 people were reached, included more than 2 500 professionals.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Communication Plan (see "Read more" section).