New innovations, from gold-extracting bacteria to ventilation on demand, are helping the mining sector economically reduce its environmental footprint
Since the 1970s, sulphur-dioxide emissions from the Inco nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ont., have shrunk 90 per cent. That achievement cost $1 billion. Now, the current owner, a subsidiary of Brazil-based Vale SA, is spending another $2 billion to reduce the remaining emissions by about three-quarters.
Vale’s Clean AER (Atmospheric Emission Reduction) project seems a high price to pay for a relatively small result. It’s necessary, the company says, to comply with pollution limits imposed by the Ontario government. Plus, it says, the project is “simply the right thing to do.” It means cleaner air, 1,300 jobs at peak construction, “and a sustainable future for our operations.” That’s the new reality of mining: Spurred by tougher regulations and public pressure, leading companies are greening their operations to ensure they can continue to operate and expand.
The changes improve the environment and the bottom line – usually cutting costs and often producing profitable new resources. And they’re essential for the industry to meet increasingly stringent, albeit informal, conditions for a “social licence” to operate, says Ben Chalmers, vice-president, sustainable development, at the Mining Association of Canada, whose 36 members operate nearly half of Canada’s 200 mines. “It’s a competitive advantage.”
“Mining companies can no longer extract resources without full consideration of the local environment, communities or lasting impacts,” says Dallas Kachan, executive director of the Vancouver-based Clean Mining Alliance, launched last spring to promote high-tech solutions to environmental challenges. “Those that ignore their corporate social responsibilities are instantly decried by shareholders, communities, NGOs and even government.”
These assertions seem at odds with the industry’s image. The Inco smelter became infamous in the late 1980s when sulphur emissions from its giant smokestack combined with precipitation to create acid rain, which decimated fish in cottage-country lakes north of Toronto and turned Sudbury into a treeless moonscape. And it wasn’t unique. At mines everywhere, toxins leaked from tailings ponds, rainwater leached acids from massive piles of waste rock into lakes and rivers, and clouds of pollutants streamed from smokestacks.
Many operators simply abandoned exhausted ore bodies, leaving toxic waste dumps and, eventually, immense cleanup bills like the estimated $500 million for 250,000 tonnes of poisonous arsenic trioxide under the former Giant gold mine, near Yellowknife, N.W.T.
Reports such as Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory and the American Toxics Release Inventory show mine emissions are dropping, and companies insist every new project will be environmentally friendly. Even so, critics decry the legacy of past practices and demand tougher regulations. They fear backsliding as governments push projects to boost job creation and cut their capacity to enforce regulations.
This summer, for example, the Yukon government stripped significant environmental conditions – including a groundwater study – recommended by the territory’s Environmental Assessment Board before approving a silver mining project of Vancouver-based Alexco Resource.
And new technologies and processes are being adopted slowly, according to a 2010 Natural Resources Canada report, which cited regulatory barriers, upfront costs and the industry’s conservatism as main reasons. It’s a “first to be second mentality” that’s not surprising given the financial, worker safety and environmental risks of innovation on mining’s massive scale, says Janice Zinck, manager of mine waste management and footprint reduction at Natural Resources Canada, which heads the federal government’s Green Mining Initiative. “The technology needs to be proven.”
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