Sustainability Israel
December 21, 2020 | 10 min read

Restoring Nature with Full Force


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The Program for the Restoration of Excavated Sites — Ecological Rehabilitation of Mines promotes the ongoing restoration and rehabilitation of mining sites, in collaboration with landscape architects.

When thinking about phosphate mining in desert regions, it’s easy to imagine scenarios that involve people destroying nature and monstrous machines harming the natural landscape, flora, and fauna in the area. However, the reality can be very different — for example, in the case of ICL Rotem’s program for the ecological rehabilitation of phosphate mines. The company’s Mining Rehabilitation Unit implements the program in collaboration with the National Nature and Parks Authority (which also supervises the work) and the Mining Supervisor, to facilitate the ongoing restoration of mining sites.

But how can man help restore and regenerate nature? “The mineral is excavated from open mines,” explains Simon Volin, Geology & Raw Material Manager at ICL Rotem. “We remove the layer of soil above the phosphate, also known as the ‘overburden layer,’ to reach the ore and extract it for processing at our plants. Once the excavation is completed, the overburden layer is used to refill the mining pit. It undergoes topographical shaping, and drainage channels are opened up. We then cover it with a half-meter layer of topsoil that contains all of the organic materials required for restoration of the ecosystem.”

“Part of our right to exist as a public company that contributes to the environment is to take care of what we leave behind.”

This is not a simple process and the restoration process involves detailed planning before the mining even commences. The goal is to know in advance what the area will look like after the mining is completed. Therefore, all volumes need to be calculated accurately to prevent any remaining mining pits in the area. The filling of the pit to its topographic height is only the first step. Then, as Volin explains, the landscape is shaped using tractors which, despite their destructive image, actually help to fix and restore the land.

“One of the most important things is opening up channels for the flow and drainage of water,” continues Volin. “After we spread the top layer of soil, the tractor marks are smoothed over. In addition to the aesthetics, the goal is to also lift the stones above the surface and push the finer soil down. This is important ecologically — it creates a shelter for animals, as well as slopes that stop rainwater runoff from gaining momentum and eroding the soil.”

For the purpose of the restoration process, ICL works with landscape architects and under the supervision of the National Nature and Parks Authority. The Authority has a dedicated team that, together with representatives from the Ministry for Environmental Protection and Ministry of Energy, monitors the progress of the restoration on a monthly basis. In parallel, the company is also promoting ecological research conducted by Professor Yaron Ziv from the Spatial Ecology Lab at Ben-Gurion University. The goals of the study are to investigate whether or not the areas are really being rehabilitated and whether or not the soil membranes are developing, and to provide recommendations for improvement where necessary. Volin clarifies: “The main purpose of the land rehabilitation is to restore all the biological biodiversity that existed prior to the mining activities.”

In addition, the company is also collaborating with the Ministry of Education in a project for twelfth-grade biology students. As part of this project, the students conduct field research to examine the ecosystem and evaluate the rehabilitation processes. To date, approximately 1,000 students from 20 different schools in the south of Israel have participated in this project.

The concept of mining restoration first emerged in Israel in the 1990s; and the integration of rehabilitation into the mining process only began about 15 years ago. We’ve come a long way since then; and today, in addition to promoting rehabilitation before and during mining activities, ICL Rotem is also involved in the rehabilitation of historic mines. Igal Levy, who has been working at the company for 45 years, manages the restoration work in the field. It’s hard to keep up with him as he navigates the GSS tools for the restoration work. He has the final picture in his head and gets straight to it.

“We use high-resolution measurements to calculate the drainage channels and the slopes — to analyze and test every detail,” explains Volin. “Today, our work is closely supervised and controlled, and this enables us to do it better. Together with the supervising bodies and through research, we can achieve a high level of ecological restoration and also restore the historical mines to improve the ecosystem.”

Volin also speaks about a green approach and the global understanding that things need to change. This comes from the realization that excavations cannot be operated unilaterally, and in a manner that destroys the environment, animals, and plants in the area. “The world has changed. We are no longer just dealing with mining and quarrying but want to also leave something beneficial behind. It may have started through necessity, but today, we are doing more than what’s expected of us. Part of our right to exist as a public company that contributes to the environment is to take care of what we leave behind and not just race forward with what we mine.”

The Gove Field, Hatseva River, Ef’e Ridge, and the Saif Field are all areas where mining activities took place and restoration efforts have been completed. Most visitors won’t even notice anything unusual about the natural landscapes in these sites. “The landscape development process doesn’t happen in a day — it takes decades. We are in the midst of research aimed at understanding how long rehabilitation really takes and what else we can do to support it,” says Volin.

When asked whether there are any signs of animals returning to their natural environment in areas where restoration efforts have been completed, Volin replied: “We are seeing a return of animals, as well as new life, which is important. The main thing is to maintain biodiversity in order for an ecosystem to exist, and that is specific to the conditions of each area.”

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