Unrestored: the upside of abandoned mining sites

New Zealand's days of industrial prowess linger in pockets around the country. Up North, the old cement works in Warkworth is now a famous swimming hole. Down South, in St Bathan's we have the Glory Hole. 

St Bathans lake edge

Back in 1863 Kildare Hill was a prominent 120m high feature of the St Bathans landscape. 70 years of sluicing and mining for gold whittled it down to a depth of 58m. Kildare Hill became the Glory Hole. A feat of industrial scale mining in a remote town in Central Otago. 

The Glory Hole is now known as 'The Blue Lake', famous for its azure blue colour. Beautiful, and serene it is easy to forget that the lake is blue because of its ridiculously high mineral content. I think there's probably quite a bit of copper in there, I looked and couldn't find any documentation of water quality testing. I'm not sure what the mining chemicals du jour were in the 1800s but I think it's worth knowing. 

Piles of crumbling stone - the filtered remains of Kildare Hill -  form cliffs around the lake's edge and make the landscape look like another planet. Old pipes jut out and give a dystopian steampunk vibe to the place. Perhaps they're remnants of the 68.8m high hydraulic lift that was used to make the Glory Hole so deep, or maybe they used to be part of the 40-kilometre water race that enabled the miners to continue extracting from the site for so long.

Whatever they were, to me they're signs that there was stuff all restoration done after the mine was abandoned in 1934. This carelessness makes me angry, but people (myself included) LOVE this place. I was there a few weeks ago and even in the depths of winter there were a group of naked and very pink men who'd travelled some distance to swim in its frozen waters. I got thinking about the good that has come from this irresponsible ecological nightmare. 

Without the lake, I don't think St Bathans would still be around. I'm pretty sure it would have gone the way of other gold rush boom-towns that sprung up around Central Otago - whose ruins now pepper the landscape. The lake is the town's saviour, but it also represents a mining restoration disaster. It represents what is left after the boom. And, we know there are some booms heading towards bust right now. 

In Wyoming they are vast tracts of land covered in deep black pits and the price of coal is sending the mining companies broke. While I'm not pro coal use, or giving the fossil fuel industries any more subsidies, it's hard to get people to pay after the damage is done. Battles to have land restored are ongoing all over the world - the town of Empire is mid battle and Union Carbide never restored Bhopal

The rights of landowners to refuse mining rights (Dakota being a shameful exception) are heading in the right direction and in Australia mining contracts are only given under the conditions that the land will be restored afterwards.

I can't help thinking we could learn something from these sites that went from being big earners and are now just big holes that we swim in. Perhaps it's time the money for restoration was fronted first? Which of Earth's current excavations will become mementos like the Blue Lake? Perhaps the conversation around restoration could focus less on 'make it exactly like it was' and more on 'what can this do for the community?'