Alcoa commits to building on 60-year success in WA

Environmental Improvement Specialist Cameron Blackburn plays an integral role in the return of native flora as part of Alcoa's extensive rehabilitation
(Image source: Alcoa supplied) Environmental Improvement Specialist Cameron Blackburn plays an integral role in the return of native flora as part of Alcoa’s extensive rehabilitation

Aluminium producer Alcoa is celebrating 60 years of operating in Australia this year. In 1963, the company started mining bauxite near Jarrahdale, refining it into alumina nearby at Kwinana, and smelting alumina to make aluminium in Victoria. This was the nation’s first integrated bauxite, alumina and aluminium industry.

Today, Alcoa Australia operates two bauxite mines and three alumina refineries in the south-west of WA and an aluminium smelter in Portland, Victoria.

Wagerup Alumina Refinery
(Image source – Alcoa supplied) – Wagerup Alumina Refinery

Rehabilitation and Restoration

The shallow, mosaic nature of bauxite mining means a moving footprint and progressive rehabilitation and restoration of forest environments. Alcoa does not mine in old growth forests or areas of high conservation value.

About 80% of all areas Alcoa has cleared for mining have been rehabilitated and are at different stages of development.

Alcoa Australia president Matt Reed said the company’s commitment to continuous improvement was instrumental in ensuring only WA native species had been returned to mined areas since 1988.

He added that Alcoa was the first mining company in Australia to officially hand back a significant area of rehabilitated land, work that was recognised with a State Government award for environmental excellence.

“Having dedicated more than 50 years of research and development into forest restoration, Alcoa has achieved an average of 93% botanical species richness return to previously mined areas over the past 20 years,” he said.

“We continue to pursue a 100% species return target, which we first achieved in 2001, and are committed to returning healthy and resilient jarrah forest ecosystems.”

Alcoa measures the extent of species return in the second year after completion of rehabilitation activities, comparing results to flora richness in multiple reference plots in nearby unmined forest.

Mr Reed said while Alcoa had a strong record of success in mine site restoration, it continued to research and implement enhancements to drive greater success and accelerate the rate of rehabilitation.

“Alcoa pioneered leading restoration methods that have led to significant success in returning a healthy jarrah forest ecosystem,” he said.

“We continue to evolve our practices in line with emerging science and factors such as the drying climate and increased bushfire risk.

“In 2022, we planted more than 510,000 seedlings and returned 2.2t of native seed, in addition to seed-rich topsoil, to areas that we rehabilitated. We rehabilitate more than 500ha of previously mined land each year and we are focused on increasing that into the future.”

Another area of focus for Alcoa is water management.

Mr Reed said Alcoa took its responsibilities of avoiding, mitigating and managing any risks related to water very seriously.

“In 60 years of operation, we have never had a negative impact on public drinking water supply and we are implementing even more stringent controls to ensure that remains the case,” he said.

Alcoa’s ambitions are to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions across its global operations by 2050 and Mr Reed said Alcoa Australia, which produced about 50% of the nation’s alumina from its WA operations and 20% of the country’s aluminium from its Portland smelter, was leading the charge on a range of carbon reduction initiatives.

“We’ve brought together experts from around the globe to design the alumina refinery of the future,” he said.

“Two technologies being trialled in WA have the potential, when combined with a decarbonised electricity grid, to reduce a refinery’s carbon emissions by about 98% and reduce freshwater use by up to 70%.”

Saying No To Mining Near Dwellingup

Alcoa says its recent commitment to not mine close to the WA forest town of Dwellingup is testament to its continued focus on evolving to meet changing environmental, social and sustainability requirements.

The company recently announced an 8344ha no mining zone in and around Dwellingup to help protect important environmental and social values.

Mr Reed said Alcoa — like others in the mining and resources sectors — was working hard to maintain a social licence to operate as expectations changed and the world addressed climate change.

“We respect the Dwellingup area has immense lifestyle, ecotourism and forest recreational values that people want to continue to enjoy now and into the future,” he said.

“That’s why we have decided not to mine this highly prospective area that is more than four times the size of Rottnest Island.”

The announcement follows Alcoa adopting similar no mining zones near Jarrahdale, another WA forest town, and withdrawing plans to export bauxite, reaffirming its commitment to refine all the ore it mines in the state at its three local alumina refineries.

Alcoa also moved to modernise environmental approvals for its WA bauxite mining operations about three years ago when it referred its next two proposed mine regions to the state and commonwealth for assessment. This process is ongoing.

“We are working to continuously improve the way we operate including modernising our approvals framework so we can continue to produce the aluminium needed for everyday use and a decarbonised future,” Mr Reed said.

Aluminium Demand

Kwinana Alumina Refinery
(Image source – Alcoa supplier) – Kwinana Alumina Refinery

According to the International Aluminium Institute, global demand for aluminium is forecast to increase by 80% between 2018 and 2050.

“Alcoa Australia is poised to play a big part in meeting that demand, and we need to ensure we continue to innovate and improve, delivering bauxite, alumina and aluminium in a safe and sustainable manner,” Mr Reed said.

“At the same time, we must add value for our stakeholders including the communities near where we operate. Some of the ways we do this is through employing local people, engaging local suppliers, and providing training and development opportunities for future generations.”

Alcoa Foundation

Mr Reed said Alcoa also had a proud history of community investment that included support from the company’s global charity, the Alcoa Foundation.

The foundation focuses on partnering with communities and not-for-profit organisations to address biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and adaption and equitable access to education and skills.

Key work the Alcoa Foundation has supported in Australia in recent years includes:

  • The Three Rivers, One Estuary initiative – with Peel Harvey Catchment Council, Greening Australia and The Nature Conservancy – that aims to protect and restore key waterways in the Peel region of WA.
  • The WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attraction’s Western Shield program that protects native animals in WA’s Northern Jarrah Forest from the threat posed by feral predators.
  • The Alcoa Community Black Cockatoo Recovery Project, with BirdLife Australia, that aims to support three endangered Black Cockatoo species in the south-west of WA.
  • Working with the Waalitj Foundation to enhance opportunities for Indigenous jobseekers and businesses in the Kwinana, Peel and Upper South West regions of WA.