What is acceptable?
The ages of human development – stone, bronze, iron and maybe silicon – are defined by the geological, mining and metallurgical skills people developed. We work constantly to improve our technologies for the benefit of this society and that of future generations. We are part of a great global industry.
But people are never going to love the mining industry. There will always be vocal and committed groups who oppose everything we do. Logic cannot sway them, even as they buy automobiles, mobile phones, and all the products of our society that depend on mining. If you are pro-environment, so they reason, you must be anti-mining. Increasingly, this message is taught in junior school and reinforced through social media. It is even a theme in popular science journals and the selection of ethical investments. We will never be able to change this with our present approach to community relations.
In response, we need to change the way we go about developing projects and selecting technologies, and how we engage with the communities around mining operations. New mines will be approved and gain support only if those developing the mines listen to the community.
Wind farm developers pay generous amounts to landowners for access to windmill sites. They also make ongoing payments to residents within a fixed distance of each installation. Rooftop solar installations report to their owners continuously through apps on the trees saved, charges saved or revenue from selling excess power back to the grid. The community expects that responsible companies will do this. It is not impossible for a mining company to identify affected community members, differentiate between them, and reimburse them in a tangible way. Reimbursement for possible impact could be fixed or linked to profitability—production or sales— independently audited and reported through an app. Even small payments could transform the attitudes of neighbours.
The community generally, and many of our employees, oppose fly-in, fly-out operations. The social harms are well reported, the benefits to society are hard to identify. Families of past generations lived in remote mining towns. Today the hardships of remote living are immensely reduced through reliable air transport, air conditioning, information technology, and communications. Small classrooms and medical consultations can be run with online resources. Family members can study university courses, run online businesses and stay in touch through broadband services. Comfortable prefabricated housing can be put on site and relocated when necessary. There is no good reason for setting up a new mine without a family residential option.
In future, it will take decades to get a large new project off the ground, and many will not be accepted by communities whatever the economics might be. Small communities in remote, lightly-populated areas now have the power to stop development. If a mining company works with a government to gain approvals without the support of the locals, they can expect ongoing opposition, demonstrations, riots, active NGO attention, social media campaigns and ultimately loss of the project. The new owner will probably be the government, using its army to suppress opposition. Do we feel comfortable with this story, which has often been repeated?
Our biggest unsolved issue is the use of tailings dams. History keeps reminding us that tailings dams fail. Even the biggest and best mining companies cannot manage them safely all the time. Tailings dam failures are the greatest public relations issue for our industry. While failures continue to occur our opponents are justified in their position. The victims are often poor villagers and river environments.
Many of our problems have common technological solutions. Highly selective mining, using rock cutting machines and belt sorting, will reduce the amount of rock going to processing and to tailings. New dry processing techniques will reduce the size of wet tailings dams. New processes will be found to turn rejected material into useful products, perhaps bricks and tiles. Selective underground mining will greatly reduce the surface impact of mines and their associated waste dumps. Mining orebodies slowly, over many decades instead of as rapidly as possible, will establish community support and reduce initial capital costs. Sure, we can maximize NPV by going in big, but that is the approach that has alienated society. Smaller mines need fewer workers and less accommodation, making on-site living more feasible. They need less power and have less impact on the environment.
Is this approach affordable? If it allows a new mine to proceed when it otherwise would be blocked, then it is affordable. Society has not been paying the full cost of its automobiles and smartphones – the cost has been subsidized by miners and mining communities. Mineral prices will adjust.
So, what are we doing about it? How much research money is going into the social and technological opportunities outlined above? Not nearly enough. The current paradigm will not carry us much further into this century. Economies of scale prevailed in the last century, but times have moved on. Realistically, project and operations managers in mining companies are not mandated to pursue these opportunities. It is up to the CEOs and directors of mining companies to set up structures and apply funds to make their future operations sustainable. It is like allocating discretionary funds to exploration. That is what sustainability is all about.
Chairman Emeritus / Principal Mining Consultant