A GEOLOGIST says no-one should write off miners returning beneath Bendigo's streets even as regulators take a step closer to closing the last hole down to the fabled goldfield.
Mining regulator Earth Resources Regulation met this week with community members to discuss rehabilitating multiple sites around Bendigo.
It comes months after the state government forced the last remaining mining company on the Bendigo goldfield into liquidation.
Mining investors had hoped to keep digging under Kangaroo Flat, where a previous company had sunk an 18km-long tunnel that still arches under the Bendigo city centre.
The liquidation of Kralcopic Pty Ltd signalled the end of mining in the Bendigo goldfield, which remains one of the richest in history.
Earth Resources is now "well underway" towards the environmental rehabilitation of several Bendigo sites and intends to appoint site auditors, Earth Resources Regulation's Anthony Hurst has confirmed.
"The auditors will provide independent advice on the environmental standards required to return the sites to safe, stable and sustainable land," he said.
"We are taking steps to prevent dust from the mine sites impacting nearby residents. At the start of the year we stepped in to commission a specialist environmental firm to conduct dust monitoring to ensure these steps were effective."
But even as momentum builds a number of mining industry figures familiar with Bendigo's goldfield are asking if the public truly understands how much gold might still lie beneath their feet.
They expect mining will return once current impediments are removed, even if that takes decades or even a century.
Those people include Keith Whitehouse, a geologist who advises mining companies about the size of the ore bodies they are exploring.
He said there was "absolutely" enough gold remaining to mine.
"I estimate there is somewhere between three and 10 million ounces left in the Bendigo goldfield," he said.
That is based on information compiled in the last decade, some of which had been closely studied after former owners Unity Mining shut down Bendigo operations in 2011.
That said, no-one has done a highly systematic exploration of Bendigo's goldfields since the late 1980s, Mr Whitehouse said.
Kralcopic's miners had hoped to take advantage of modern exploration techniques and a decade gathering other records to mine, had they not been beset by the ongoing fundraising difficulties that led to Earth Resources revoking its licences in 2019.
Now, those miners must watch as other companies take advantage of a surge in money flowing into Victorian mineral exploration.
This week, the Minerals Council of Australia touted a record $184.9 million spend over the 2020/21 financial year.
Large chunks of that money went into central and northern Victorian-based companies searching for the next big mine.
None is going towards anything directly under Bendigo's.
Everyone seems to have their own theory about what finally killed mining on the Bendigo goldfield.
The Advertiser has spoken to multiple people involved in Bendigo gold mining, as well as community and environmental advocates in the months since Kralcopic collapsed.
They put forward a variety of reasons, from environmentalists' advocacy, community concerns (misplaced or otherwise) about arsenic-laden dust from some sites or to worries about companies' ability to raise funds.
Others say miners have overestimated the amount of gold beneath Bendigo.
People in that camp point to company Bendigo Mining's misguided dream of digging an incredibly expensive tunnel from Kangaroo Flat as exhibit A.
That company dug the tunnel in the 2000s and confidently predicted they would be hauling up $603 million a year when it hit full production.
Back then, one economic consultancy predicted Bendigo's total economic output would swell 11.6 per cent thanks to the tunnel once gold production hit top gear.
To put that in perspective, Bendigo's entire economic output dropped by about 5 per cent during the harshest two months of the 2020 economic crisis, according to estimates by economic consultants at REMPLAN.
Bendigo Mining's dreams of riches were completely misplaced.
Its tunnel did end up producing gold, just nowhere near the amount needed to justify the hundreds of millions of dollars it had taken to dig the tunnel.
It was a disaster for the company and Bendigo's mining dreams never recovered.
In a grimly ironic twist of fate, Bendigo Mining's successor Unity Mining shut down its Bendgo operations in 2011, the same year the mine was originally supposed to hit full production.
Unity ended up handing the company to Kralcopic, which itself struggled to raise the money needed to pay off its debts and fund future works before collapsing.
Part of Bendigo Mining's problem was that all the modern techniques and research in the world could not protect it from a fundamental truth.
It could not know exactly what was underneath Bendigo until it had physically dug down to it.
The company may well have aimed for the wrong spot, Mr Whitehouse said.
Historical records suggest there is no one large deposit under the city. Instead, the gold is hiding across the wider field.
Some areas might contain as much as half a million ounces of gold, others a tenth of that, Mr Whitehouse said.
There is no chance of anyone being given permission to sink exploration drills to confirm that any time soon.
Earth Resources and the state government have shown no interest in the search for gold under Bendigo and are both committed to the years-long process of rehabilitating old mining sites in the area.
They are far more interested in promoting mining in areas outside of Bendigo, including much touted virgin exploration territory east and north of the city which companies are currently vying for permission to explore.
But who can say what might happen 50 or 100 years from now?
"Mining technology will continue to evolve. There may be techniques that become available in the future enabling more economic access to areas," Mr Whitehouse said.
'It's one of the premier goldfields in the country. I don't think it's by any means dead."
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