Cleaning up mining: a new industry group hopes to raise the profile of cleaner mining innovations
Posted by Alana Wilson on 10/4/2012 4:03:01 PM
The mining industry is often portrayed as a dirty industry, using old technologies and without regard for the environment. Yet increasingly, the mining industry is taking a proactive approach to improving environmental performance and using new technologies that decrease water and energy use, minimize environmental disturbances, and better remediate mine sites after mining operations are complete.
Such changes are occurring throughout the mining cycle and are driven by increasing expectations from society for improved environmental performance, more stringent regulations, and economic considerations . Maintaining a social licence to operate within communities consistently ranks within the top business risks facing miners, with heightened community expectations for engagement and transparency in operations affecting the ability of companies to access capital and permits for mining projects .
Environmental concerns often underlie community objections to mining projects, and are threatening the viability of current and new mining projects in jurisdictions across Canada and worldwide. For example, social unrest in Peru over the proposed Conga mine near Cajamarca has resulted in several states of emergency, protest-related deaths and casualties, and delays that are threatening a US$4.8 billion investment.  Environmental concerns are also threatening mine developments in North America, with the Taseko Prosperity mine in British Columbia, and the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska undergoing environmental reviews amidst public opposition and disputes regarding environmental impacts.
The mining industry in Canada is already responding to these changes through a number of initiatives including the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining and the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s e3Plus Framework for Responsible Exploration. At the international level, the International Council of Mining and Metals provides guidelines for its members on environmental management, reducing energy use and emissions, and improving water management.
Recently, a new industry group – the Clean Mining Alliance – was also launched to promote the development of new and innovative technologies within the mining industry. Its members include mining companies, companies developing new techniques and technologies, service providers, and research institutions. Members of the Alliance have a number of projects underway to decrease the environmental impacts of mining, including:
- biological treatments for acid rock drainage;
- alternatives to cyanide use in ore processing;
- reducing energy consumption and CO2 emissions in processing; and
- decreasing the amount of water used in mining.
We recently met with Dallas Kachan, Executive Director of the Clean Mining Alliance, to find out more about their work.
Interview with Dallas Kachan, Executive Director of the Clean Mining Alliance:
A number of groups, including the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) and the Mining Association of Canada (MAC), already have initiatives to support more environmentally sound mining practices. Why is a new industry group needed at this time?
Dallas Kachan: Although we have been following the sustainability initiatives of other mining associations such as PDAC and MAC, very few of their standards specifically address the role of technology in sustainable development. We think that we complement what they, the ICMM and others are doing by featuring the advances that are being made in the development and adoption of clean technology in the mining sector.
Are you concerned that your Alliance may contribute to a perception of the mining industry as a dirty and non-innovative industry?
Dallas Kachan: We are hoping to have the opposite effect. We are highlighting new technologies being pioneered by our members, including processes which minimize the need for tailings storage, reduce water use, and capture carbon dioxide. For instance, one of our members, American Manganese, has developed a process for producing electrolytic manganese metal (EMM) that requires only a fraction of the power used today, while creating benign tailings and minimizing water requirements. Member Nevada Clean Magnesium is developing a process to sequester virtually all of their CO2 output in the production of magnesium.
You published a blog earlier this year called “The quiet clean mining revolution”. In what ways is the mining industry undergoing a revolution towards cleaner technologies?
Dallas Kachan: Environmental protection practices such as remediating mine tailings, increasing energy efficiency, and reducing water use by using closed-loop processes were not a concern of mining companies in the past. Mining companies are now adopting new technologies because doing so is becoming more efficient and cost effective than paying environmental penalties. We are approaching the tipping point where cleaner mining is becoming the cheaper option.
Will cleaner mining methods increase the price of metals and minerals and the consumer goods that use them?
Dallas Kachan: The opposite should happen. Mining companies are primarily interested in clean technology to reduce costs. Clean technology helps the bottom line by reducing the penalties paid to discharge pollutants into the environment, and potentially accelerating the environmental impact assessment process. Although the initial capital investment may be greater than that of a traditional mine, cleaner technologies are projected to lower operating costs and be cheaper in the long term.
What are some of the trends and growth areas for cleaner mining?
Dallas Kachan: A major area of growth in clean technology affecting mining is in materials science and the use of nanotechnology and membranes, as well as synthetic biology. The challenge of water and tailings remediation is driving innovation by a lot of companies, especially in the oil sands sector.
What role do you see research institutions, such as the UBC Centre for Environmental Research in Minerals, Metals, and Materials (CERM3), in facilitating this transition?
Dallas Kachan: UBC CERM3 is a charter member of the Clean Mining Alliance, and serves as an incubator for new ideas and concepts. For instance, they have made a lot of progress in the development of remotely controlled mining vehicles to improve mine worker safety, save fuel and boost efficiencies. Technology transfer, development, and patenting are very important, and UBC CERM3 is helping play a critical role by bridging the gap between research and development and industry.
1Ernst & Young, Business risks facing mining and metals 2012-2013: Executive Sumary, 2012, EYGM Limited.
2International Council on Mining & Metals, Mining’s Contribution to Sustainable Development, 2012, ICMM.
3The Economist, Mining in Peru: Dashed expectations, in The Economist,2012.