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Geological controls on natural ecosystem recovery on mine waste in southern New Zealand

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Environmental Geology


Slopes of an abandoned waste rock at Wangaloa coal mine, south-east New Zealand, have naturally developed variable vegetation cover over the last 40–60 years. Three distinct areas of revegetation can clearly be identified: dense cover, patchy cover, and largely unvegetated, and the differences in revegetation success are directly related to the physical properties of different rock types making up the waste rock substrate. The colonizing plants have become established in largely unweathered rock with essentially no soil development. Quartz gravel and siltstone waste rock are the two principal rock types forming substrates for revegetation. The quartz gravel has clasts up to 3 cm, and was derived from the coal-bearing sequence. Siltstone was largely derived from a Quaternary loess cap on the coal mine area. These two substrates have similar mineral contents, and this mineral material provides the low level of available nutrients. However, there is little difference in nutrient status or trace element load of the different substrates, and differences in cohesion, moisture content, and proportion of quartz pebbles control revegetation success. Finer grained matrix has been flushed from quartz gravel waste rock by rain water, leaving a dry surface armour layer of quartz pebbles. This surface layer inhibits plant establishment, so quartz gravel waste rock remains largely unvegetated. Erosion creates deep rills, and steep surfaces creep downslope. In contrast, full vegetation cover was established on the siltstone waste rock that was cohesive and did not erode. Patchy revegetation was localized by siltstone in mixed quartz gravel and siltstone substrate. Invertebrate diversity and distribution were closely linked to the spatial patterns of revegetation. The rate of revegetation and ecosystem recovery was primarily dependent on the proportion of siltstone waste rock in the last dumped truck load. A quartz pebble content <15% is optimal for plant establishment.

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The support and supply of rehabilitation information from Solid Energy N.Z. Ltd and MWH, in particular Tim Preston and Craig Evans, is gratefully acknowledged. Many thanks also to Simon Clearwater, Julie Clark, Andrea Todd, Hamish Barrons, Jenny Rufaut, Michelle Baker, and Denise Fastier for assistance in the field and lab.

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Correspondence to D. Craw.

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Craw, D., Rufaut, C.G., Hammit, S. et al. Geological controls on natural ecosystem recovery on mine waste in southern New Zealand. Environ Geol 51, 1389–1400 (2007).

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