Mining and the “Three Rs”

It is said that cultures do not change. Rather they adapt to circumstances; responding to pressures both internal and external to the cultural group. Shifts in language occur first followed by an alteration in behavior. Words take on new meanings and priorities change. In relatively recent time, the word ‘nice’ described a shy or reserved person, nowadays ‘nice’ is used generically for anything pleasant or enjoyable. In a similar way, some years ago if you asked a young person to list the “Three R’s”, he or she would respond, “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic”. Today you are more likely to hear “reduce, reuse and recycle”; a reflection of more than forty years of public discussion about the environment and our impact on it.

For the global mining industry, the environment became something it had to really pay attention to during the latter part of the 1980s. For almost two decades, mining had openly resisted pressures from a global environmental movement and objected to the introduction of laws and regulations, claiming that the costs involved would be ruinous on the industry. Evidence of a behavioral shift emerged when CEOs started making public statements on the importance of the environment followed by the appointment of VPs of Environment with real powers granted from the Board Room. By the mid-1990s almost every company had internalised the need to address the environmental impact of their operations. Today the mining industry invests heavily in people and technology to avoid, minimise or mitigate negative environmental impacts; cultural adaptation is complete.

Almost without exception, water is the number one environmental issue facing mining operations. Both volume and water quality are of consequence. People living close to mines worry about the security of the water they need for their lives and view the presence of a mining project with concern. Communities feel particularly threatened because of the way water, a resource essential for life, is typically treated as a commodity to be bought and sold – and the economic power to gain control is with the company. The right to water is one of the weaker human rights, limited to safe drinking water and sanitation. Water for personal food production, which is of enormous importance to rural populations in the developing world, is not considered a human right. Not surprisingly, communities will push back against a mine to protect traditional sources of water.

Conflict is inevitable unless the mining company manages the situation properly.

Managing the volume of water used in a mine fits more directly into the “Three R’s” mantra than water quality, although there are clearly some interactions. Reducing and recycling are the most common strategies employed at mines, with reuse (as distinct to recycling) less frequently encountered. All three are essentially technical challenges.

Reducing water use in mining is all about limiting water losses and finding and applying technologies that use less water. Most water loss in a metals mine is through evaporation from the wet tailing left after recovering the valuable mineral components. Tailing ponds may be covered to reduce evaporation, although it is more common to apply technologies that recover as much water as is reasonably possible from the tailings and recycling it.

Recycling water has become a norm in the mining industry, with the common objective of having zero release of water back to the environment. Typically, water is recycled from tailings back to the mill. Some water is inevitably lost, so that a small amount of new ‘top-up’ water is constantly required.

For mining, reuse means employing water that has been used elsewhere. At a number of operations, grey and black water from camps and offices is cleaned up and recycled to a flotation mill or leach circuit. Such an approach means that there is no need to tap into primary sources of surface or ground water. No net increase in water extraction is the objective.

A fine example of reuse is the situation at the San Jose Mine of Fortuna Silver Mines Inc. in Oaxaca, Mexico. Water is scarce in the central valley of Oaxaca and existing supplies were overcommitted before the arrival of Fortuna. Not surprisingly, the company met strong resistance to the idea of tapping into groundwater or building dams.

Recognising both the social and technical realities, Fortuna looked for a win-win solution. The company noted that the nearby town of Ocotlan did not treat residential and commercial sources waste water, dumping raw sewage into a river. Fortuna approached Ocotlan with a proposal to install a sewage treatment plant and pipe water from the outflow to the mine. An agreement was reached and Fortuna is now reusing treated waste water from Ocotlan to recover a silver bearing concentrate from ore mined at San Jose.

Nevertheless, a socially responsible approach to environmental management does not guarantee a social license to operate. While a link can be demonstrated between poor environmental management, especially water management, and conflict, the opposite is not necessarily true. Studies have shown that environmental management contributes surprisingly little to the quality of a social license to operate. Indeed, over the years there have been some well observed examples of mines with exemplary, award winning environmental performance that had a weak or no social license, and of mines with less than stellar environmental practices that enjoyed the benefit of a strong social license from the local communities.

The Three Rs are firmly part of the culture of modern mining. The industry is justifiably proud of its technical skills in these areas, which contribute to but do not guarantee a social license to operate. Evidently, mining companies are now expected to behave this way.

By Ian Thomson, On Common Ground Consultants Inc.

Ian Thomson is a Director of On Common Ground Consultants Inc., an international consultancy based in Vancouver, Canada, specialising in enhancing social performance and socially sustainable outcomes for the global resource sector.

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