February 2010

The Green Mining Initiative

Tracing the path towards a more sustainable mining sector

By D. Morrison

The mining industry is responding to stakeholder and regulatory requirements that it manages the long-term legacy of mining operations such as the now-closed Marmora iron mine east of Peterborough, Ontario.

Can mining be “green” in that it has little or no environmental impact? Probably not. Extracting resources from within the earth will always involve some disturbance. But over the past few decades, the industry has demonstrated its willingness to become “greener” through reduced impacts.

To gauge and encourage advances towards sustainability in the sector, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) created the Green Mining Initiative (GMI) in early 2009. The research program seeks to find improved ways to protect the environment, remediate impact and develop alternatives to existing technologies for mineral extraction, mineral processing and environmental reclamation. Under the initiative, research will focus on footprint reduction, innovation and waste management, ecosystem risk management, and mine closure and rehabilitation.

As part of GMI, NRCan jointly commissioned the geotechnical engineering and environmental sciences firm Golder Associates Ltd. and the Delphi Group, an environmental business strategy firm, to develop a survey of the Canadian mining sector. The survey aimed to learn about the environmental issues faced by the mining industry. CIM has distributed the questionnaire to its members, and future issues of CIM Magazine will share the results and analysis of the survey.

Meanwhile, to understand the changes affecting the environmental performance of the mining sector, it is important to assess the progress the sector has already made and to identify the drivers of change now and into the future.

Over the past three decades, perhaps the greatest advance has been in effective environmental footprint reduction. The quality of emissions from smelters has improved significantly. Similarly, mining operations have managed to greatly improve the quality of water released from their sites. In some jurisdictions, the process and mine water quality is better than that of ambient groundwater. The net effect of these improvements is that environmental impacts are now largely limited to the immediate location of the mine site.

Evolving standards

Most mining sector companies are interested in maintaining good relations with populations living in close proximity to their operations. In any jurisdiction, meeting the public’s environment-related expectations is easier when environmental regulations are applied equitably to all mining companies. Internationally, initiatives such as the Equator Principles have helped level the field by creating a framework that financial institutions can use to assess environmental and social issues when evaluating project financing opportunities. In many cases, mining companies, to ensure access to that financing, now conform to international standards that exceed national regulations.

Mining companies recognize that their social licence to operate hinges on the commitment to social and environmental stewardship that they demonstrate. There are proven ways to mitigate many of the environmental impacts of mining. Now, companies are also trying to improve the social conditions in the area — not just during the life of the mining operation, but by making lasting improvements that will continue after the mineral resource is exhausted. In accepting such responsibilities, companies cannot, and should not, seek to stand in for local and regional governments. However, taking on their fair burden, companies can demonstrate the willingness to add enduring value to the areas in which they operate.

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