Is sustainable mining possible?
Lately, words like ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ have been heard a lot in the mining sector. But is green mining a utopia or is it really possible to achieve? If so, what benefits could it bring to the industry and how could it be achieved? These are some of the questions we will raise and resolve in this article.
To begin with, we will analyze the definition of sustainable mining provided by the Government of Australia, a country that has a large interest in this sector, being one of the most advanced in the field. The definition reads as follows: “to develop a country’s mineral and energy resources in a way that maximizes economic and social benefits while minimizing environmental impacts”.
Therefore, it is clear that one of the main objectives of this type of mining is to reduce the impact on the environment to a minimum, so that there are hardly any consequences from this activity for nature. This is because mining is essential to our lives, so it’s an activity we cannot cease, but it can be transformed. In approximately 90% of our daily activities we use chemical elements and minerals that are extracted from the earth’s interior.
Sustainable mining seeks to reduce the environmental footprint while preparing to produce more strategic minerals.
Mining occupies real estate and can sometimes change the landscape. Therefore, it is not only about preserving the landscape surrounding the mine, but also about not wasting resources, such as, for example, water.
Therefore, if we look at some of the most consistent concerns derived from mining activity, we can find the following:
1. Deterioration of water quality and quantity. Water is used in mining exploration, exploitation, concentration and leaching processes. However, in this use, a large amount of material is lost and chemicals may contaminate the water.
2. Changing landscapes. One of the most notable examples is the change in river dynamics. The profile and course of the river flow may be altered due to mining activity, which may increase the risk of flooding in the area.
3. Energy and resource consumption. The exploitation of a mine requires the use of energy –for large machines – and resources extraction, such as water. Factors such as the deepening of the mines, increased compaction of the rock, or longer haulage (transport) distances can increase this use.
4. The production of industrial wastes. These are those aqueous, solid or paste wastes that remain after the exploitation of a geological resource.
5. Illegal mining. This is a concern because it is occurs outside the law, and therefore does not reach the minimum technical standards for the development of the mine, nor the information or characteristics for its efficient planning, which in most cases increases the possibility of environmental damage and the risk to the population surrounding the site.
How can we solve these problems?
1. Use of recycled water. One of the measures to curb water use is to implement water recycling. Countries such as Canada and Sweden already use this technique, which consists of storing recycled water resources and reusing them in industrial processes. In mining, sedimentation ponds are created, treated and monitored.
2. Sustainable mine closure. When a mine ceases to operate, it is closed. This process can also be carried out in a sustainable manner, which means with the aim to guarantee the recovery and environmental stabilization of the area and the regeneration of the ecosystem. Acid drainage, tailings and final waste pits / tailings can be avoided.
3. Resource and energy optimization. To optimize resources it is important to carry out an effective environmental impact assessment, and to implement measures and strategies that respect the environment and help save energy through sustainable practices for the use of renewable resources.
4. Contingency plans. Should be created in order to strategically address any negative incidents to ensure business continuity.
5. Use of technology. Technology, in many cases, is capable of reducing the environmental impact of mining activities. Mineral extraction is an complex task that requires great precision to avoid incurring failures.
In the case of drilling operations, extremely accurate trajectory measurement is of great importance. Gyroscopes are extremely useful when making surveys, as they measure the trajectory with great precision, providing reliable subsurface data.
This significantly reduces the volume of explosive used in a mine, while reducing the size of the fragmented rocks, which saves on material, environmental and labor costs. In the case of oil and gas, precise trajectory measurement avoids a disaster such as well collisions.
Technology can even help to minimize human costs. A gyroscope, specifically SPT’s GyroTracer™, helped locate the 33 miners who were trapped 700 meters underground in August 2010 in the Copiapó mines. Accurate and timely borehole survey data made it possible to know the exact location where the rescue tunnel had to be drilled without putting their lives at risk, minimizing the possibility of cave-ins.
All of this suggests that technology is of utmost importance. For example, it is essential to have the latest equipment that meets world standards, which, in turn, is environmentally friendly and reduces the impact on ecosystems.
6. Communication with communities. Respecting the communities in the surrounding areas is of vital importance in mining. It is crucial to hold dialogue to understand what potential problems to address or anticipate.
7. Conversations between the State, the extractive company and the communities. In order to establish dialogues between these three agents to create mechanisms or institutions to avoid social and environmental conflicts.
After investigating the problems that mining can cause and verifying that there are indeed numerous solutions to each of these problems, we can affirm that green mining is entirely possible. As we mentioned earlier, mining activity is necessary to preserve life as we know it, since almost all the products we use every day are made up of elements or minerals derived from mining. Therefore, this industry is fundamental to our society and cannot just disappear. But it can transform and adapt its processes to acheive sustainable mining.