A Blueprint for Sustainable Mining

Mines supply many of the critical raw materials and resources that drive our society forward and ignite economic growth and technological development. Yet, this critical need to mine must be balanced with a holistic environmental and social responsibility. For sustainable mining companies, optimising environmental performance and social impact isn’t just about ethics or regulatory compliance, it is also good business practice.

New technologies, from more efficient energy sources and greater air and water quality management capabilities to more effective tailings reprocessing, are helping mines lower their environmental footprint while simultaneously reducing production costs and improving competitiveness. A sound, progressive governance strategy already invested in these technologies as a core pillar of the overall business is the blueprint for a sustainable mining industry in the future. We examine what the blueprint looks like below.

While many investors now consider the impact of environmental and social issues in a broader definition of an investment return, the understanding that companies that perform better on ESG measures, perform better financially, is also common knowledge amongst most global investors.

This has added even greater impetus for the case for sustainable mining.

What is sustainable mining?

Sustainable mining refers to the reduction of negative environmental, social and governance impacts of mining operations. Sustainable miners practice responsible stewardship of the natural environment, meeting society’s requirements for resources today while ensuring the needs of future generations can also be met.

Sustainable Mining: A Manifesto

How should mines measure their sustainability? A globally shared framework of concepts, consistent language, and metrics is required for transparency about the sustainability of organisational activities to stakeholders, which is critical in converting social and environmental sustainability aspirations to reality. The GRI Sustainability Reporting Guidelines & Mining and Metals Sector Supplement provides the leading determination methodology for defining a company’s significant environmental, social and economic impacts, including:

  • The control, use and management of land
  • Contribution to economic and social development
  • Community and stakeholder engagement
  • Labour relations
  • Environmental management
  • An integrated approach to mineral use

More broadly, a sustainable mining industry is also well-placed to deliver many of the objectives outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals:

End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Mines can play an important role in delivering meaningful social benefits that promote sustainable development in local communities.

Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

Mines should strive to reduce risk and create a zero-harm environment to promote excellence in the performance of their operations.

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities

By investing in employees’ skills development and training through a combination of combination of learnerships, bursaries, artisan training and other skills transfer initiatives, mines can play a key role in increasing education.

Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

Organisational culture should prioritise safety, diversity, innovation and performance.

Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation

Dramatic improvements to business performance and efficiency can be unlocked through new ways of thinking and finding new ways of working.

Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Mines must ensure the safety, wellbeing and sustainability of the human settlements around its operations through sustainable infrastructure projects.

Ensure sustainable consumption and production pattern

At the core of any sustainable mining plan is a commitment to the highest standards of stewardship of land, water and air resources.

Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development

By establishing synergistic partnerships with a variety of other stakeholders and NGOs, mines can contribute to education, economic, social and environmental projects.

How can sustainable mining be achieved?

A strong commitment to stewardship, investments in modern technologies, and embracing the circular economy shape the foundation of a sustainable mine site. Here are 6 key areas in which mining can become more environmentally sustainable:

1. Reduce, reuse, and rethink mining waste: from liability to profit

Across the world, mining produces over 100 billion tonnes of waste each year in the form of rocks and tailings. If not handled and managed correctly this can pose a significant environmental and social risk, through harmful dust and gas emissions and water leaching. In the most severe cases, failing to adequately deal with waste can have catastrophic consequences, as happened in Brazil recently with the failure and collapse of two tailings dams in 2019 and 2015.

An integrated management approach combining the highest levels of operational safety and monitoring, and the utilisation of modern storage facilities and dam linings is a minimum requirement in effective, responsible tailings disposal.

In the right conditions, leading sustainable miners can take it one step further. These miners actively re-treat tailings to recover minerals and trace elements left over from previous generations of processing technology and capabilities. By mining waste, significant economic value can be generated with minimal environmental footprint. Indeed, by transferring historical tailings to modern storage facilities operated with higher environmental standards, the liability of these massive waste bodies is reduced.

READ MORE ABOUT TAILINGS REUSE

Pan African Resources has entrenched itself as one of South Africa’s lowest cost and therefore profitable gold miners. Its tailings retreatment plants, where legacy mine tailings are reprocessed for additional gold yield, are a key element of this enviable production record. Here the company transforms a historic environmental liability into profit.

Elikhulu Tailings Retreatment Plant processes approximately 1.2 Mt of historic tailings per month, and has enjoyed an AISC of $614/oz. The Barberton Tailings Retreatment Plant, the miner’s other key surface asset, produces up to 20 000 oz. of gold per year at an AISC of $795/oz.

2. Water conservation

From dust suppression and slurry transport and storage to mineral processing, a significant volume of water is required for the day-to-day operations of any mine. Yet, in light of increasing concerns around water scarcity and long-term water security, mining companies face ongoing pressures to reduce their consumption of fresh and bulk water, and ensure discharge meets the highest environmental standards – or better yet be recycled for applications like agricultural irrigation.

By using modern water treatment technologies, from biological processes to desalination, evaporation and crystallisation, miners can significantly optimise their water cycle by continuously reusing process water in a closed loop circuit, working towards zero liquid discharge. This not only reduces a mine’s freshwater demand; it can also lower per-kilolitre water costs, as well as improve on-site availability of this operation-critical resource in the event of bulk supply interruptions.

Mines also need to ensure all risks of water pollution are managed to the highest safety and environmental standards. Not only is discharge strictly monitored; acid mine drainage (AMD), caused primarily by leeching oxidised sulphide minerals, can have severe negative impacts on aquatic life and overall riverine health. The potential for AMD needs to be identified and predicted through sampling, testwork and modelling, and treated with heavy metals removal and alkalisation.

Leading mines have a sustainable, low-impact water use profile.

READ MORE ABOUT WATER CONSERVATION

At Barberton Mines, a highly effective closed-loop water recycling circuit reuses the bulk of the released groundwater and process water for other mining processes, including water supply in the tailings retreatment plants. Excess water is released into special purpose evaporation ponds, while rainwater is collected in tailings and pollution control dams and incorporated into the mine water system.

3. Lower CO2 emissions by transitioning to renewable energy

Mining is a significant consumer of energy in its day-to-day operations, with global gold mining operations alone consuming an estimated 132 terawatt-hours per year (that’s equivalent to the total national energy demand of Sweden!). With carbon emissions becoming an increasing environmental, financial and legislative liability, a transition to clean energy away from fossil fuels is becoming critical for a miner’s overall sustainability.

Energy self-sufficiency utilising alternative energy such as solar, wind and hydroelectric power isn’t just enabling mines to reduce their carbon footprint, improving the overall sustainability of the industry in a more carbon-sensitive future. It also helps to improve efficiency, costs and reliability of power supply.
Though self-sufficient, clean-energy mines are still in their infancy in Africa, several exciting projects in various stages of development by the continent’s leading sustainable miners are providing a roadmap that provide a glimpse of what the energy future of the industry will look like.

In addition, a host of other energy-saving initiatives are available to mines to help further optimise their energy usage profile by adopting modern technology across operations, such as high-efficiency motors, compressors and pumps.

READ MORE ABOUT RENEWABLE ENERGY

At Elikhulu Tailings Retreatment Plant in Evander, Mpumalanga, a new solar photovoltaic plant will provide up to 10 MW of clean energy. The plant is one of the first utility-scale solar PV facilities to be commissioned in the South African mining sector.

Using polycrystalline module technology, string inverters and a single-axis tracking mounted system, the plant will generate electricity at just ZAR 0.83/kWh, which is significantly cheaper than bulk power. Best of all, the Elikhulu solar plant will reduce CO2 emission by over 26 000 tonnes per year

4. Ensure communities thrive beyond the life of mine

Mines are often the single biggest providers of jobs in the surrounding communities, especially where mineral resources are extracted in more remote areas. However, finite ore bodies mean they cannot sustain these opportunities indefinitely. The long-term wellbeing of these communities therefore depends on diversifying economic activity and developing sustainable business and financial opportunities that aren’t exclusively dependent on the nearby mine.

Miners with a strategic sustainable social licence plan can often play a leading role in developing and incubating start-up, community-led businesses. Local supply chain-centred businesses can develop around the shorter-term service requirements of the mine and grow their geographic scope to supply customers in other regions in the long-term as their technical and capital resources expand. Other primary economic activities such as agriculture and forestry also provide potential economic opportunities if correctly managed and executed.

Allied to a strong local skills development and training philosophy, sustainable miners can proactively manage the economic transition of its host communities to ensure the completion of mining activities does not spell financial ruin.

READ MORE ABOUT COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

Pan African Resources’ 45-hectare blueberry farm in Barberton provides a sustainable cash crop-based revenue stream that outlasts its mining operations in the area.

Barberton’s geography and climate makes the area perfect for blueberry cultivation in South Africa, and the labour-intensive harvesting process provide welcome economic development in an area battling with high rates of unemployment. By producing 300 tonnes of blueberries per year, through 94 000 blueberry bushes, for export to Europe, the Middle East and Far East, the farm will provide an estimated 800 jobs.

First harvest is expected during May 2022.

5. Restore the land to its natural state

Extracting minerals scattered thinly in the earth can result in significant disruption to the natural environment. Surface mining, in particular, often requires vast areas of vegetation to be cleared, and huge quantities of topsoil and subsoil stripped. This can lead to loss of habitat and biodiversity, soil erosion, and, by removing these natural carbon sponges, exacerbate our efforts to fight climate change.

Sustainable miners practice responsible land use by limiting the impact of their operations on the natural ecosystem they work within, and then reverse this impact by rehabilitating the site once mining activities cease. The objective of these miners is to leave the land in the same or better ecological condition it was prior to operations. Using a variety of methods including reforestation and the removal of mining infrastructure and waste, mining companies can minimise their environmental impact on the land, and ensure its natural resources can be transferred to the next generation of use.

READ MORE ABOUT LAND REHABILITATION

Barberton Mines operates within a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is a key stakeholder in the preservation and improvement of the unique Barberton biome in partnership with the Barberton Nature Reserve and environmental organisation Conservation Outcomes.

At Evander Mines, ongoing rehabilitation of dormant and non-productive areas is central to its sustainable mining strategy. These programmes include above-ground restoration, replanting natural flora, demolishing old office buildings and other structures and removal of waste material.

6. Combatting illegal mining and its impact and communities and the environment

Poverty and unemployment in local communities gives rise to higher incidents of illegal mining and theft of infrastructure, especially at shafts that are no longer in operation. These syndicates mine for illicit profits with little respect for safety or the environment. On top of increased safety and security risks and a negative impact on production and revenue, illegal mining also increases water resource degradation and the risk of acid mine drainage.

While increased law enforcement and security presence is a necessary intervention, sustainable miners also develop solutions to address the systemic social and economic conditions that encourage illegal mining activities. This includes creating awareness of its dangers to communities, the environment and the impact of a reduced life-of-mine on the local economy.

READ MORE ABOUT ILLEGAL MINING

In response to security and illegal mining challenges, an integrated strategic and operational approach has been implemented by Pan African to prevent and combat illegal activities and limit their impact on local communities. This approach is being coordinated with relevant law enforcement and prosecution authorities on a continuous basis and is being expanded to include community-based crime prevention initiatives.

In addition, the rehabilitation of old shafts has assisted in significantly reducing the challenges of illegal mining. Negative environmental impacts of illegal mining activities including mercury and sulphites released directly into rivers and streams are also monitoring.

What does the future of mining look like?

Sustainable Gold Mining

Hazardous chemicals, reagents and radiation are additional environmental sustainability issues that gold miners need to mitigate.

Chemicals like cyanide (among the most hazardous substances used by any gold mining operation) need to be procured, handled, transported and treated or destroyed according to the highest safety and quality standards as prescribed in the International Cyanide Code. Sustainable miners also continually work towards lowering their consumption of reagents through ongoing optimisation and technology investments in the mine water treatment cycle.

Levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials in soil, rock and ore need to be assessed regularly, and the spread contained by an effective dust management system. All radioactive isotopes must be managed in compliance with the Hazardous Substances Act.

READ MORE ABOUT OUR WASTE MANAGEMENT

Conclusion

Mineral consumption creates economic growth and provides jobs and prosperity. Historically, mining was often achieved at significant environmental cost, but today improved, lower impact mining practices, more efficient technologies and a sense of environmental stewardship is helping the mining sector lower its environmental footprint, as well as optimise its contributions to positive social change.

This isn’t just borne of a need to meet compliance regulations and appease investors increasingly sensitive to a company’s ESG credentials; sustainable mining is already providing a competitive business advantage. In the future, this early adoption will pay even greater dividends.

These are the foundations of a social and environmental policy that will drive the world towards sustainable mining operations.