January 23, 2017
On The Cusp
By John Thompson
Wold Professor of Environmental Balance for Human Sustainability at Cornell University

Changes in the relationships between mining companies and communities are welcome and necessary but the broader challenge is to improve mining and the reputation of the industry.

Few dispute the need for metals and other resources extracted from the earth.  These commodities provide the basis for infrastructure, transportation and basic comforts for modern life.  Numerous specialist elements are critical for the high technology world of communication and clean energy.  In the developed world, we take this for granted, normally with little appreciation for the mining and processing required to produce these metals. In the developing world, however, metals are fundamental for changing the lives of one to three billion people who lack basic power, heat, clean water, sanitation and nutrition.

Regardless of our daily use of natural resources, many people worry about mining.  Areas of major concern include potential damage to water supplies, agriculture, and fishing, and the disturbance of local ecosystems.  The focus of opposition may come from local communities, indigenous groups, and even those from distant cities.  In the worst case scenario, this opposition ends in violent protests, protracted legal disputes, delays and termination of projects.

The mining industry is acutely aware of this paradox – people need and use resources but many oppose mining.

To succeed, a mining project needs to do more than satisfy local regulations, provide jobs, pay taxes, or offer local philanthropy.  New approaches to community engagement are necessary, involving social scientists with relevant local experience, extensive listening and consultation to build understanding and realistic expectations, and new types of agreements.  In recent years, we have seen regional funds established and administered locally, new impact-benefit agreements, and new roles for indigenous groups or their corporations as partners in local development and mining operations.

Changes in the relationships between mining companies and communities are welcome and necessary but the broader challenge is to improve mining and the reputation of the industry.  Change is not easy for a physically demanding and capital intensive business that normally operates in remote and demanding areas; nor will change be uniform – there will be leaders and laggards.

Environment, health and safety are core values for most mining companies.  Accidents or loss of life are not accepted as inevitable and employees are trained to be both responsible and to hold their colleagues, managers and company accountable for dangerous or non-compliant behavior.

Dramatically improved safety has resulted, in many cases exceeding all other heavy industries, and efforts are underway to extend this philosophy to health and environmental performance. The focus is on cultural and behavioral change, but technology is also playing a supporting role in detecting and resolving issues.

We live in an era of digital transformation, the internet of everything and big data – “the Fourth Industrial Revolution” – and mining is benefitting from this revolution.  Mine design and performance are now simulated by computers and sensors provide real time data from every part of the process; trucks and shovels, conveyor belts, flotation tanks, and effluent streams.

The resulting mass of data is beginning to be used to optimize designs and improve performance, for example, to automate and integrate “smart” mines, to increase selectivity (removing waste from ore and ore from waste), to improve equipment performance, and to monitor tailings dams, water quality, vibration and dust.  Reduced costs and improved profit margins are evident among mines moving down this path, and additional benefits result from energy reduction, water recycling, and reduced travel to and from mines.

This is just the beginning.

Many companies have embraced sustainability and routinely report their energy consumption, water use, carbon dioxide emissions, biodiversity protection efforts, and health and safety standards.  That said, tailing ponds remain an area of great concern following the recent disasters at the Bento Rodrigues tailings dam in Brazil, resulting in 17 deaths, and a similar tailings dam failure at Mount Polley in Canada.  In late 2016, the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM), representing 23 of the largest mining companies, released a position statement on “Preventing catastrophic failure of tailings storage facilities” following the results of a comprehensive review, detailed reviews at Bento Rodrigues and Mount Polley, and changing regulations in some jurisdictions.  New technologies, such as “dry stacking,” have been implemented in arid environments but are not easily used in more temperate climates.  Further improvements will be required, but ultimately we need to reverse the trend toward larger, lower grade mines that generate more and more tailings.

Finally, consumers are increasingly interested in having products where none of the materials are tainted by conflict, child labor or environmental degradation.  Historically, mining companies largely ignored the end use of their metals, but sophisticated tracing and tracking (including digital technology) may require different thinking.  While onerous, those that can meet these expectations will again benefit and may be become preferred suppliers.

As with the rest of the world, the rate of change in mining will increase, albeit constrained by the physical nature of the business.  Change will be challenging but will offer opportunities and rewards to the innovative.  The long-term benefit will be a cleaner, more efficient industry that is more widely understood and respected by communities and customers alike.

John ThompsonJohn Thompson is Wold Professor of Environmental Balance for Human Sustainability at Cornell University. He was VP Technology and Development and Chief Geoscientist for Teck Resources (1998-2012) and worked internationally for Rio Tinto and BP Minerals in the 1980s. He works with the World Economic Forum as a member of the Global Agenda Council for the Future of Mining and Metals and is currently a member of the Global Future Council for Advanced Materials.