Green mining entails a careful balance of resources, and adapting new equipment and altering the supply chain to accommodate more sustainable processes can be costly. However, companies are beginning to see value in taking the risk. Joshua Kirkey, Communications Advisor for Natural Resources Canada (NRC), says, "The main barrier for implementing green mining technologies is the need for industry to overcome risks associated with unknown practices and technologies. Overcoming these risks is what the Green Mining Initiative (GMI) is addressing by assessing the merits of using an environmental technology verification program to validate environmental claims of new technologies to raise confidence of the industry to implement the technology."
Defining green mining as a means of instilling best practise
According to Kirkey, "Green mining is defined as technologies, best practices and mine processes that are implemented as a means to reduce the environmental impacts associated with the extraction and processing of metals and minerals. Examples include the reduction of greenhouse gases, selective mining approaches to reduce the ecological footprint, and reduction in chemical use. Green mining technologies and practices offer superior performance with respect to energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions and the use of chemicals." Kirkey also says that green mining technologies "help reduce operating costs for the mining industry and improve its competitiveness".
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is often a huge challenge for junior mining companies.
The mining industry is a gigantic energy consumer, requiring a huge energy input for daily processes to commence – enough energy is needed to operate heavy machinery to meet demands. Should the need for mining increase in the future, then the risk of greater energy consumption also looms. Fortunately, the mining industry is committing itself to decreasing current energy use by employing efficient energy utilisation plans that can drastically cut the amount of electricity mining companies’ use – without reducing productivity.
Kirkey highlights one of the most recent successes for the GMI – where an automated mine ventilation system was installed in an underground mine in greater Sudbury, Ontario. This initiative resulted in a reduction of up to 40% of the energy consumption, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and a saving in costs of up to $4 million per year.
However, mining industries are not solely dependent on electricity and energy to carry out their tasks – they also need ample supplies of water. In fact, current statistics point to mining industries eating up almost 20% of the world’s water supplies – almost every stage of the mining process requires a tremendous volume of water. Clearly, there is an urgency to cut back on current water usage to reduce the environmental footprint that mining creates. One of the key ways that has been devised to rectify this is to employ real-time calculations on water usage. Currently, many companies tend to overuse water because they merely utilise averages and estimates in measuring how much water is needed. The trend has been to use precise water requirement calculations to end this wasteful habit.
End of the line – new methods to improve mine closures
At the end of the utility of a mine, it is eventually closed off and the area is then restored by the company. However, when mine closure is done haphazardly, the area can become an environmental and safety risk for the communities that live close to the mine. As a consequence, one of the green mining trends that are being looked at for 2014 is the development of smart and effective closure and rehabilitation plans that will rectify whatever environmental footprint the mine has had over the course of its operation.
New Zealand coal mining company Solid Energy has developed a new method of using biosolids to rehabilitate old mining sites.
These plans have aggressive environmental rehabilitation at their heart and involves soil recovery and the replanting of trees. Kirkey describes a GMI development currently in operation in mine sites in Canada, where the use of organic wastes to rehabilitate mining lands has recently been implemented, whereupon energy crops such as corn and canola can be grown for bio-energy production.
Eventually, the hope is to have the entire ecosystem reinstated after being disturbed by mining activities. In carrying out such an initiative, the mining company should always involve the local residents. Indeed, community engagement is a burgeoning trend for 2014 since it fixes two of the largest problems for the mining industry – firstly, it eases the local tensions these companies face, which means that their daily activities will be smoother and less susceptible to delays. More importantly, however, local communities are more knowledgeable and sensitive towards the environment and engaging with them will educate mining companies about how best to carry out sustainability initiatives.
To support careful mine closure initiatives, several countries have developed legislation that specifically stipulates the requirements that companies should accomplish when beginning the process of closing off their mines. The aim is for green mine closure initiatives to be the industry standard in the future.
Investing in mining R&D
At the end of the day, all of these trends will become moot without the scientific infrastructure to support them. Therefore, mining companies have been moving towards greater investment in research and development – including green initiatives that can be easily integrated into the current supply chain of mines.
Many companies, regardless of their desire to reduce environmental damage, are dissuaded from doing so due to the logistic demands of change. This is why research and development has been focused on making sure that these green mining efforts are not only effective, but also unobtrusive. It is to this end that NRC set up a division that would become a world class leader in the development and deployment of green mining science and technologies – CanmetMINING. Kirkey says, "CanmetMINING research and development work is focused on addressing department and industry priorities such as energy efficiency, clean water and northern mineral development." This is anticipated to set a trend for 2014.
Optimism for the future
The public support for environmentally sound processes has put tremendous pressure on companies to adapt sustainable processes within and beyond the mining industry. Given this and the technological innovations and trends in green mining that are beginning to gain the attention of larger mining companies, the future looks optimistic for green mining.
Kirkey says, "Reducing the environmental impact of mining and related activities continues to be one of the most significant and important challenges for the sector. The industry’s public image is closely tied to its environmental performance and recognizes that it must improve to ensure it remains responsible, competitive and productive."