Profiling the Role of the Closure Planner

1st September 2023
By Darren Murphy

Over the next 12 months, the Closure Planning Practitioners Association (CPPA) will be publishing a series of website articles, based on interview responses from members, to help grow wider understanding of our profession – including the value of using a closure planner and the benefits in becoming one.

As a pre-cursor, we caught up with chairman Darren Murphy for an update on CPPA activities and to hear a little more about his own story in closure planning.

When Darren Murphy reflects on where his nearly 35-year career has taken him, he realises there is an element of “happy accident” to it.

“I’ve got a piece of paper on my wall that says I’m a zoologist,” Murphy says.

“I did a Masters’ degree in zoology at UWA and one of my first jobs was doing fauna surveys for Western Mining, going out to waste rock dumps and catching mice basically!

“From there Western Mining said ‘why don’t you come over and be our environmental officer at Leinster?’ Part of that was coordinating rehabilitation and I became increasingly interested in it.

“That then led to someone on site saying ‘government has told us we need to write a closure plan, you should do it because it’s all about rehabilitation.’

“I started looking at it and I realised it wasn't actually all about rehabilitation. There were questions around what we were going to do with infrastructure, how we were going to demolish it and where the materials would go.

“There was sort of this slow process of osmosis where I started to get a wider range of skills.

“I learned about demolition because I had to engage with demolition contractors. I learned about the social aspect [of closure], land use planning and tenure, and lots of other things that are far removed from environmental management and even further removed from zoology.”

The upshot of all that learning is that Murphy not only now finds himself an established mine closure planning professional but also chairperson of the national Closure Planning Practitioners Association (CPPA).

For many people who work in closure planning, Murphy’s career progression may sound familiar – a shared sense of evolution that helped give rise to the establishment of the CPPA in 2017.

Today, closure planning is an integral part of mining. That wasn’t the case 30 years ago and the result has been a critical and in-demand role that has largely developed without a structured framework around it.

The CPPA seeks to address this by providing forums in which practitioners can share learnings and knowledge, and also by working to establish a more formal definition of closure planning.

This includes a submission for official listing in the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO).

“We found that within the practitioner cohort there was strong recognition of closure planning as an occupation and good visibility of what the role was – but the further you got into industry and talking to regulators, the cloudier things became,” Murphy explained.

“As part of the ANZSCO process, one of the interesting things for us has been considering where closure planning sits and what umbrella it should come under.

“It’s not quite under environmental science or management, although a lot of practitioners have emerged out of those disciplines. We looked at engineering and there wasn’t quite a fit there either.

“Eventually we looked at planners, particularly urban and regional planners, and said ‘that’s similar to what we do.’

“Whereas a town planner is focused on development within the boundary of a town or a regional planner is focussed on development within the boundary of a region, we focus on the transition to a future land use within the boundaries of a mine or an asset.

“But the sorts of tasks we do are the same. We liaise with regulators around approvals and obligations and requirements, we engage with stakeholders to identify their needs, we coordinate multidisciplinary inputs, we prepare plans and documentation to support processes, and we present to management and then government and stakeholders on the outcomes of processes.

“In preparing our submission we have consulted with several other professional associations including the Planning Institute of Australia and Australian Institute of Mining and Metals, which has been very helpful.”

Murphy says demand for closure planning skills is already strong and will only grow stronger, so it’s vital ‘fresh’ talent continues to emerge.

This year the CPPA is putting in place a ‘speed mentoring’ program that gives graduates the opportunity to ask questions of experienced practitioners in a relaxed and informal setting.

The CPPA is also preparing to work with other industry bodies to establish closure planning core competencies, which are initially likely to take the form of micro-credential courses before developing into a more formal certification scheme in the longer term.

“There’s not enough of us at the moment and one of the concerns is that there will be people taking on closure planning roles reactively to meet demand, who won’t have the right grounding or understanding,” Murphy said.

“There is definitely increased recognition and demand in consultancies for closure planning skills sets. The recognition is probably a little bit less within mining companies, but the demand is similarly growing.

“Where we aren’t seeing the recognition or demand yet is externally, from either the regulators or other stakeholders.

“But experience tells us it will come, and we’ve perhaps got a window of five to seven years before that happens.

“During that window we’ve got to put a lot of stuff in place – to get ANZSCO-recognised, to get a code of ethics organised, to look at a code of practice and to get a continuous professional development program up and running within a structured learning management system, all back ended by a certification process.”

Murphy hopes future generations of mining professionals will see the community-shaping opportunities that closure planning offers.

“What I really enjoy about closure planning is that it’s an opportunity to make the mining industry better and leave a positive legacy,” Murphy said.

“If mining companies do closure planning badly then their social licence to operate will be impacted and they may not have the chance to open another mine.

“Over the last 10 or 15 years I’ve become a real advocate for mine repurposing, looking at using closed mines or disturbed areas for alternative land uses – whether it be renewables, water supply, energy storage, creating opportunities for Aboriginal corporations and Indigenous groups, or even building space bases.

“For me closure planning offers an ability to contribute to that, to say ‘we’ve used this land for mining for the last 50 years, it’s now going to support the next generation of communities in different way’.”

 Stay tuned to the CPPA website for monthly articles profiling experiences in closure planning.

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