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Professional practice showcase: Five minutes with Carmen Hermann

ยท 1100 words, 5 min read

We sat down with Carmen Hermann, Principal Closure Demolition Engineer at WSP, to learn more about her role in the resources sector and get her insights on safely closing and removing redundant site infrastructure, developing liability assessments, and helping clients transition old or underperforming assets to alternative uses.

Tell us about your career journey – how did you arrive at your current role?

I started my career in Brisbane consultancy as a structural engineer in the mining and industry team. I moved around Australia trying out different regions, as well as trying to find my technical passion! In 2013, I had the opportunity to be the on-site structural engineer for the Rio Tinto HISmelt demolition project. In this role I found my niche - helping clients safely remove redundant infrastructure. As demolition is not well understood by most asset owners or engineers, I was able to work around Australia and overseas to assist clients in preparing their sites for closure.

As I gained more experience in the industry, and as Environment, Social and Governance (ESG), and climate change has become more important to companies, investors and communities, the role has expanded into helping clients transition their old and underperforming assets to alternative uses.

What does your day-to-day work look like? What projects are you currently focused on?

My ‘typical’ workday varies quite a lot, which is great because that means I’m always learning. One day I will be helping asset owners to understand what they need to consider when preparing to transition their site, which may include strategy discussions, risk assessments, understanding regulatory requirements, asset condition and market opportunities. The next day, I could be on site assessing the infrastructure, determining scope for infrastructure removal and retention, or developing liability assessments. Another day I will be working with contractors to help them to develop safe demolition designs and methodologies. I am also involved in global industry associations.

My current focus is on building our team and capacity to work with more clients requiring our asset transition services, particularly where they require decommissioning and demolition of redundant assets to facilitate the transition.

As a closure engineer, have you seen a change in the way the resources industry approaches the end of mine life? Is rehabilitation and closure being factored in from the start of mine planning, or is there still more work to be done?

Historically, it has been uncommon for life of mine planning to adequately consider or set aside provisions for mine progressive rehabilitation and closure. This is evident by the many legacy or abandoned mines around Australia and globally. The focus on planning for a successful mine closure is much more apparent now than in the past, but we still have a long way to go.

At WSP we have teams dedicated to mine closure planning and execution - they help clients devise the most effective procedures for successful transition away from operations. While we are working with our teams to implement closure considerations in the design and operational phases, as an industry we need to improve this integration. We will only achieve consistently great outcomes once we start considering the whole lifecycle and the impacts our decisions will have on later stages.  

With the growing importance of ESG and sustainability, investors are not just looking at short-term returns but have started to question long-term sustainability, environmental and social impacts. This is holding the mining industry much more accountable to maintaining their social licence to operate.

It is fantastic to attend industry conferences such as the AusIMM Life of Mine conference and see the positive stories of mine closure and transition that get showcased.

What does a positive mine closure legacy look like to you? Can you share any examples?

A positive mine closure legacy looks different for each community surrounding the mine sites. Determining this site-specific positive closure vision requires significant community and stakeholder engagement, and understanding of the existing environmental and geological conditions that may support or limit the options for alternative uses. In the case of mining areas where there is more than one mine in the region, it will require a coordinated approach with other mines in the area.

In some cases, a town has developed around the mine site and relies on the mine for their economic survival. Therefore, transitioning from mining operations will need to carefully consider the risks and opportunities for the broader community, potentially including ways to systematically introduce new industries that will reduce the reliance on the mine for economic opportunities.

Mine closure requires input from a range of technical disciplines, working together to achieve coordinated outcomes for closure. It is important that closure planning is undertaken early so that we understand the long-term goals and are not limited by operational decisions that may not align to closure goals.

Globally, there are some great examples of transitioning mining or quarry assets to an alternative purpose. The outcomes range from return to agricultural land or natural ecosystems, to hotel experiences such as the Shanghai Wonderland in China. In Australia some of the successful closures include the Quarry Amphitheatre in City Beach, Western Australia; Lake Kepwari, also in Western Australia, which has been transitioned into a recreational lake built on an old coal mine; and the Kidston Mine which is currently transitioning into a pumped hydro storage facility.

How might we encourage more young people (particularly women) into careers in the resources sector? Do you have any words of advice for those looking to build a career in mining?

The industry has evolved since I began as the only female in my engineering team. I now work with a diverse team of talented individuals who are focused on helping our clients achieve a positive legacy postmining operations. The mining industry has provided me with transferable skills that have allowed me to work in locations around Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

As the global demand for resources shifts (for example away from coal and towards rare earth metals), it is the perfect time to help shape the modern industry and post-mining landscape! With global focus on topics including decarbonisation, desertification, biodiversity loss, food security and water preservation, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in projects that will contribute to improved technology and more sustainable practices.

This will require a diverse range of skills required to operate and continue to improve our mining practices. My suggestion for those interested in developing a career in the mining industry is to build connections with experienced professionals (in industry, government, consulting or academia); attend conferences and information sessions; and jump at any opportunity that arises to visit mine sites. Research case-studies, build networks and use any information platforms available to learn all the ways you can get involved and make a difference to our collective future.

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