SRC hosted a panel event with four industry experts for a discussion about the progression of historic mining practices—the legacy issues we face today and what we may face tomorrow, and what sustainability really means.
Short on time? Here are some highlights from the conversation. Responses have been summarized and modified slightly for clarity and length.
This is the second part of the conversation. Read part one.
Lucinda: Thinking about the issue of sustainability, which includes economic growth, social equity and environment protection and tailings in those three areas, how can we think about end land use with respect to the things that are left behind, like tailings, waste rock, and how can that in itself generate income? Do you think there's a way that remediation can itself be a generator of income to the communities?
Ian: In some of my experience, especially with northern aspects of mine remediation, there’s a term called remediation economy. Those products left over from historic mining are now potentially, at least on the social and economic pillars, starting to drive small economies in and around the local areas, building new businesses, contractors and service industries, especially on some of these large government-owned legacy cleanups.
Lucinda: How can communities get more involved, not just as recipients of a clean environment or the remediation activities, but helping with the mine closure and remediation process?
Ian: On our sites we started very early in our process of the assessment side before the remediation design with communicating and building trust with the local stakeholders. We used quite a bit of local traditional knowledge and once we built that trust, we brought that into not only the assessment, but the remediation design by looking at it from a risk management standpoint, as opposed to going to a specific regulatory numeric standard.
Lucinda: Maybe that's one of the keys to avoiding legacy issues in the future. Communities are the best stakeholders and knowledge holders of their area, and maybe involving them early on can help to identify some of the legacy issues. I wonder, especially when the mines are orphaned sites and you need to invest so much into them, how the economic costs can be considered early on in exploration or even operations?
Lesley: I think one of the ways we end up with these challenging legacy issues is when we evaluate projects using a discounted cash flow model. It's a very powerful tool, has a lot of value, but it has some pitfalls as well. We work really hard on getting the costs right on the capital side at the beginning of a project, but the closure costs are well out into the future. When discounted to present day, they have almost no impact on the project. And because they're so far out in the future, our human tendency to focus on what we need to do tomorrow, not next year, we inherently kind of discount the need for accuracy on those costs as well.
When you have maybe two or three different recovery options, and one of them is more amenable to the environment or biodegrades better, [you could] spend a little more time looking at that option, even if it doesn't have the best bottom line from a discounted cashflow perspective. Is there some risk modeling that should be done to compare options? I think that sometimes we miss when something's actually a more economic option when you consider the long-term costs of choosing something that has a harmful chemical in it, for example, when there's another technique that would be easier when it comes to closure and reduce the legacy issues from the mine.
Bernard: Typically on the investment side, when it comes to exploration, it's being driven by investors. The investors are looking at whether you’re carbon neutral; when you look at your ore, are you looking down the road at processing? Are we going to have a liability down the road? So a lot of the early exploration is using advanced tools, such as QEMSCAN, to look at the mineralogy to find out what's in the material at early stages, which gives them a better asset to look at what's going to happen down the road. This is being driven by the financial institutions as well: what are they investing in?
Lesley: I think something else that's growing is looking at secondary products; what else is in the ore that we could potentially get out if we use slightly different techniques?
Bernard: Processing streams are definitely advancing. You're not only taking out one commodity, you're looking at all the commodities, seeing whether there's a viable product.
Lucinda: This issue of risk management from investment, from remediation, from operating, it seems like a really interesting tool to try and identify some of these issues early on. That it's more about potentially a methodology than one kind of overall solution. How can traditional knowledge be used in these plans and why isn’t it being used more?
Ian: One of the things that I often hear is traditional knowledge is not science-based; it's more of a qualitative form of information versus a quantitative that we so often use in the assessment. I would beg to differ in many cases that qualitative fits readily into not only the assessment, but the remediation. Where we're finding it gainful is qualitative data going into some of the revegetation management on the backside of our remediated sites, like engineering tailings cover systems, using locally sourced seeds or plants with that traditional knowledge input.
Lucinda: I think community engagement in the past could also be considered a legacy issue. It had a top-down approach, more communication rather than involvement. It sounds like involving communities, you will have to spend time building that trust up before this two-way communication happens, but if you do that work, it actually makes your project more efficient.
Ian: Absolutely. Once you build that trust and once you see them as project partners, at least in my experience, they're a valuable resource that not a lot of people are utilizing, at least historically. In many cases, they've lived there for many, many years. They know the sites very well. This is their backyard. Why not use that?
Lesley: I just wanted to add, I know one thing that you've talked about in the past, Ian, is when you were prioritizing what sites to work on first, your engagement with the local people actually changed the priorities. There were things that they were concerned about, maybe from a safety side in their community, that shifted your focus.
Bernard: Most of the exploration companies are doing community engagement right away. They're doing their due diligence at the beginning, before they even go into some of these sites, to make sure that they sit within the community and the community has buy-in to their projects. This has been a huge change over what was done in the past.
Lucinda: Turning away now from closure to technology as a way to both identify legacy issues and deal with them early on, what do you think are the future skill sets for both exploration operations?
Lesley: Well, I think it requires a broader set of skills, having technical subject matter experts involved is critical to developing technology. And something we touched on a little bit earlier with stakeholder engagement, it's actually something that's at the forefront for engineers and geoscientists to further their training in, in terms of understanding Indigenous issues, how to incorporate traditional knowledge into their work. I think that those are some of the things that we'll be looking to as well as a broader understanding of how the technology is going to impact the long game.
Bernard: In the labs, our main goal is technology and driven by technology is precision or low-detection limits, understanding the ore, the characterization. From atomic absorption to inductively coupled mass spectrometry to high-resolution mass spectrometry, computed-tomography scanning, to QEMSCAN—all of these things lead into a better understanding of the actual ore and the characterization. So the technology or the skill sets behind that is hiring the right people, the adventurous person that understands you have to dig deeper and understand different ways of doing things. In the lab, you need to be a first adapter, and you need to understand that technology is going to drive this even more in the future.
Lucinda: It's interesting, you both brought up the issue of more advanced technical skills that underpin all the new technology. As we digitize mines, people are more in control rooms and more technological, but they also need to have this broad understanding of environmental and social issues. That's a challenge for us: to harness technology without losing the broader vision so we avoid some of these issues in the future.
Ian: Our team has historically been economists for project management of the funds, but one of the things that we're starting to bring in that’s really paying off is social science perspectives into some of our mining applications and remediation applications. Not only to build trust and communicate with our local stakeholders, but it brings a secondary perspective on sustainable development that we don't often get.
The other thing I believe is putting adaptable measures for climate change into some of our assessments and more specifically, some of our designs. Previously, we built tailings impoundments to one to a 50 year or 100-year standard. Well, that's maybe not good enough. We're starting to look at broader climate adaptation by going to one to 200 year, one to 300 year because things are changing. We're seeing that trend from a data standpoint.
Back to Indigenous traditional knowledge, they provide very good qualitative data saying, “Well, here's what the baseline was and here's what the baseline is now.” And they're very good at providing that data to help with climate change adaptation that you can put directly into your remediation design.
Bernard: First adapters, that's the sense in the lab, that's the sense of the mineral group here is we're looking at technologies to drive. I would suggest in the long term that some of these new techniques should be used or looked at, especially in some of the earlier stages of exploration, sensor-based sorting, CT scan or QEMSCAN, looking at the mineralogy of the material at an earlier stage, looking at investment and making sure that all the investors that want to invest that the new technologies are being looked at, that they are carbon free.
I believe in the future we're going to see small modular reactors up at mine sites running these things versus diesel. I see hydrogen. There are a few things that I think are going to really change as we move forward. In the legacy form, they are changes that you have to figure out how to adapt to and move forward. And I see those things moving forward, especially on the lab side anyway.
Lucinda: So harnessing technology in order to deal with these issues, and you mentioned some of the things that come in from outside, such as climate change or net zero or carbon emissions, how can we adapt them for our use in the mining industry?
Lesley: I think a willingness to embrace change, doing things differently, doing things in new ways, will really serve us well; recognizing that we can always learn something from someone else, regardless of their background or their training. We all need to work together on it.
It hit home when Ian was talking about stakeholders and this is their backyard. If you're going to have a mining operation in a community, well, it's your yard too. Just taking that ownership and thinking of it in that way. Now, if you were a member of this community, if you were going to retire there, if your grandchildren were going to grow up there, what would you want done? How would you want to leave that site?
Need a recap of the discussion? Don't forget to check out part one.
Learn more about SRC's mining and environment services and expertise.