The role of vegetation in characterising landscape function on rehabilitating gold tailings
Haagner, Adrian Sigmund Harold
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Gold mine waste poses a significant challenge for rehabilitation practitioners and can negatively impact on soil, air, surface water and groundwater quality. This, in turn, can affect the environmental quality of humans and other biota in nearby settlements and surrounding ecosystems. All mines are required to have a plan in place to impede or mitigate these environmental impacts and to ensure that all legislation is complied with to apply for closure. Site closure is the eventual goal of all mine residue complexes, as it is the stage at which a company becomes released from all legal and financial liability. The South African legislation is comprehensive and essentially requires that all latent and residual environmental impacts are addressed and that an end land-use designation is put in place that conforms to the principles of sustainable development. The Chemwes Tailings Storage Facility complex near Stilfontein was monitored to provide a strategic assessment of the state of the rehabilitation, and to provide recommendations for the successful remediation of problem sites. A combination of vegetation sampling, landscape function assessments and substrate chemical analyses were conducted to gain a predictive understanding of rehabilitation progress. The monitoring was conducted over two years across a chronosequence of rehabilitating sites from tailings dam slopes and an adjacent spillage site. An undisturbed grassland and a starter-wall served as reference sites. The data were first analysed independently and then by making use of multivariate data ordinations. This allowed for holistic investigations of the relationships between sites, substrate chemistry, vegetation composition and landscape function. The results showed that the tailings dams had a distinctly different suite of vegetation from the reference sites, but had no statistically significant differences in composition across the rehabilitating chronosequence. There were positive correlations between rehabilitation site age and landscape function indices, suggesting that some aspects of ecosystem development were occurring over time. In some sites, deterioration in the substrate quality as a growth medium was observed with increases in acidity and salinity. This was most likely caused by pyrite oxidation in the tailings and the high concentrations of free salts. The increasing acidity and salinity resulted in vegetation senescence and declines in landscape function. However, those sites that possessed higher landscape function appeared to have the ecosystem processes in place that temporarily suppressed negative chemical changes. Whilst this was encouraging,the rehabilitation chronosequence had not yet proven the self-sustainability that it would require for closure purposes. Further monitoring would be required over time. The sustainability of the rehabilitating chronosequence was brought into question by the high acid-forming potential of the tailings growth medium. Concerns were also raised over the ability of the established vegetation cover to persist under conditions of increasing stress and disturbance. Furthermore, the land-use capabilities of the sites are limited by current rehabilitation procedures and various recommendations were made to rectify this. A more streamlined monitoring framework for the tailings complex was also proposed. The contribution of this work lies in its holistic integration of monitoring techniques and the meaningful analysis of ecosystem function, an aspect largely ignored in minesite rehabilitation.
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