Sustainable Mining in BC: Does it really exist?
Sustainable is a word used everywhere these days, thrown around like a corporate-world Frisbee: sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, sustainable communities. But sustainable mining?
Many people agree with the impossibility of sustainable mining: you take something out of the ground (minerals) that you can’t re-grow or replace. In forestry, you replant trees. Agriculture has planting, harvesting, and rotational crops. Even fisheries can raise various species for re-stocking of lakes, rivers, and oceans. But not mining.
However, mining is no longer just about removing ore. As Robin Curry (an ex-Smithereen and long-time employee in the mining industry) points out, “Sustainable mining is not an oxymoron if you accept the UN’s definition of sustainable development as development that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’”
BC’s mining industry has a long history of mostly unchallenged exploration and development activity. Today that is changing. Permitting for mineral exploration and mining begins with the Ministry of Energy and Mines but is reviewed and approved by the Ministry of Forests, Ministry of Environment, and DFO, among others, as well as any affected stakeholders in the area, including First Nations. Mineral claims give rights to what’s underground, not on the surface, and that is where the other Ministries and stakeholders come in: to get at the minerals, we have to go through a lot of surface to get there.
So we change the word “mining” to “development.”
Curry continues, “The key aspects of sustainable development are environmental, social and economic. When I think of a healthy mining industry I think of a safe working environment; training for individuals that will enable them to secure work elsewhere if desired; minimizing footprints; reclamation and remediation of mine sites; development and application of advanced technologies; benefits (social and economic) accruing across all communities; efficient use of inputs; reuse and recycling of used materials.”
Use technology to reduce consumption Kevin Pegg, a resident and business owner in the Bulkley Valley, adds, “I’d like to see a massive reduction in the huge waste and inefficient consumption of fossil fuels. We already have the technology to make dramatic reductions in fuel consumed.” Decreased use of fossil fuels could lead to slower, less risky development of petroleum sources because, realistically, our society is not going to stop using it until we are forced to.
In October, Dr. Stephanie Bertels of Simon Fraser University presented a talk on “Strategic Change Towards Sustainability in Organizations” to the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC. In her work with corporations that are moving toward a more sustainable corporate culture, she was told over and over again, “You had us until ‘optional.’” That is, when talking to companies about how to achieve their sustainability goals, people needed the goals to be rules and the rules to come with measurable incentives.
“We are a world leader in responsible development and continue to implement measures and systems that help us improve our performance. In BC we have adopted the Mining Association of Canada’s ‘Toward Sustainable Mining’ initiative as a way of demonstrating our commitment to better align our actions with the priorities and values of the communities where we operate,” states Karina Briño, President and CEO of the Mining Association of BC (MABC) in October’s issue of Soar magazine.
Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM), launched in 2004 by the Mining Association of Canada, is a set of guiding principles and performance elements that govern key activities of companies in all sectors of the mining and mineral-processing industry.
TSM helps the industry sustain its position as a leading economic contributor in Canada while protecting the environment and remaining responsive to Canadians. It also helps the industry maintain its social license to operate, while improving its performance by aligning mining activity with the priorities and values of its communities of interest. In essence, TSM helps the industry operate in a proactive, socially responsible way.
Regarding the MABC initiative, Joanne Runnells, a colleague with the BC government, adds, “There’s been lots of great work so far on this, and it’s definitely moving the industry in the right direction, with more work to keep us all busy in the future too.”
Incentives work wonders. Runnells continues, “It’s also important to consider all the phases of mining—from exploration through closure—when talking about sustainability. One great comment I heard this year was about minimizing the impact of mining to reduce the amount of reclamation needed. This was in reference to underground versus surface mining, where underground mining would have had a much smaller impact. It would have been more expensive during mining, but more cost-effective in the long term because closure costs have been so large…in terms of money and environment.
“What often doesn’t get talked about is cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-cradle (fully recycled) use of mined products. We’d need fewer mines if we made more efficient and effective use of metals and other mined materials. What’s happening with all those cell phones, computers, toasters, cars, etc?”
Mark Fisher, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) producer in Smithers, BC, agrees. “I could go to the local landfill and get all my metal needs if I had the time and if it was valued…There are enough resources in circulation in this world but they’re all tied up in the dumps. ‘Sustainable mining’—mine the landfills! There’s no such thing as sustainable mining as long as we are focused on resource extraction.”
But could BC survive with fewer mines? Andrew Ramlo is an economic futurist with Urban Futures in Vancouver, and was named one of “Vancouver’s Top 40 Under 40” this year. Quoting Industry Canada, he points out that 46% of exports from BC consist of base and precious metals, and minerals. Reducing our mining would have a drastic effect on the province’s economic growth and income, the income that funds our health care, builds our roads, runs our schools…
“We are the largest producer of copper, the only producer of molybdenum and the largest exporter of steel-making coal in Canada. We have an enviable safety record and are the largest employer of aboriginal peoples in Canada. BC has world-class mining expertise, including legal, financial, geoscience and environmental knowledge.”
So how do we help mining become a sustainable industry in BC? Besides becoming informed of the differences between exploration and mining, we can support companies with strong ethics and commitments to sustainability; let them know you are paying attention and will hold them accountable. Encourage government programs for research and development of new technologies and science that will help us environmentally. Demand more government inspectors. Be aware where your mutual funds are invested. Be responsible in your own backyard: reduce, reuse, recycle.
Says Briño, “Over the years, we have been able to build stronger relationships and partnerships with First Nations, and we continue to focus on our social responsibility; however, we also have work to do in ensuring there’s increased public understanding of current mining practices and the contributions the industry brings to the communities where we operate.”