February 2009

Good science

A vital tool in meeting stakeholder concerns

By K. DeVos

A research assistant conducts a household survey with a community resident.

A recent report in the national news media told of a proposed deposition of “toxic mine tailings” into lakes described as fish-bearing. It was alleged that the tailings could adversely impact the fish, and thus the lives and livelihoods of downstream First Nations communities.

Such media coverage understandably raises concerns among stakeholders about mining activities. However, as was the case with the news item in question, the mainstream media’s reportage on mining sector activities can at times be one-sided, emotion-driven and short on facts — on top of which, sometimes the “facts” they report are just plain wrong. Criticisms of the mining industry are often based on old projects that are not indicative of current mining practices. Furthermore, a lack of knowledge among journalists can reduce this highly complex topic to simplistic sound-bites. Willful biases are also sometimes at work, stemming from certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that appear to be opposed to mining on principle.

Whatever its drivers may be, such misreporting and misinformation can result in prolonged stakeholder consultation processes, significantly swelling costs and delaying project startup. This impacts the project’s financial viability, a crucial measure at a time when commodity prices indicate that projects must pass a high hurdle rate.

Sound science

The keys to successfully meeting stakeholders’ and regulators’ concerns lie in the application of good science, the proper explanation of issues, and the lucid and accessible presentation of facts. Consider the example of the lake deposition of tailings. In this case, it is important that stakeholders understand that our standard of living depends on having the materials provided by mining. However, it is also a reality that the process of mining inevitably creates waste products that must be disposed of in the best possible way. Depending on a wide range of factors, lake deposition just may be the best way of disposing such waste.

Consider also the case in which an NGO published pictures of a red rust stain from water flowing out of a metal mine’s tailings dam. The seep was no larger than many that could likely have been seen in road-cuts in the vicinity. Moreover, the chief risk from tailings occurs when specific metals are released to the environment, and not from the iron precipitate. The iron precipitate actually helps remove metals from the system. Of course, none of this information accompanied the stirring picture.

The appropriate response by the mining company in question was to demonstrate that accurate and verifiable science had been employed to determine whether the tailings posed a risk to the natural environment or to humans, such as the hunters who might cross the tailings deposition site. Regular verification of field data would then help reassure stakeholders that any changes would be noted and subsequently addressed. This highlights the importance of site-specific scientific work. It offers stakeholders hard data from which to draw conclusions. For instance, measuring pre-project baseline levels of contaminants can help a mining company defend the quality of its post-project remediation and make the case that it is unfair to expect them to achieve lower-than-baseline levels of harmful substances.

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