It is well regarded that the mining industry has a pivotal role to play in the green transition. The industry delivers the metals and minerals required for a greener future yet faces some significant challenges if it is to do so in a sustainable and responsible manner. Rochelle Bloemhof, Mine Closure Specialist, and Iphendule Ndzipho, Sustainability Consultant, Built Environment, at WSP in Africa share insights on viewing the lifecycle of a mine through a sustainability lens for improved environment, social and governance (ESG) gains and towards sustainable mine closure.
“Mining relies on non-renewable resources and, in its raw state, is inherently impactful on the Earth. Thus, those who practice in the fields of geology and mining must be the stewards of the Earth’s resources. This means that finding sustainable solutions across the mining lifecycle and delivering valuable ESG outcomes are key to safeguarding our future,” says Bloemhof.
Mining is ubiquitous across Southern Africa, with South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and DRC being major contributors. As such, mining organisations can make significant inroads not only in transforming their operations, but in setting the tone for how ESG can be approached across the board.
“Achieving successful and responsible mining operations through to closure, however, requires a future-focused approach,” adds Bloemhof.
The first step is the most important
The keys to shifting the paradigm of mining in Africa – from exploration, through design and construction, to operations and, finally, closure and post-closure – lie in understanding the inherent value of the mining operation beyond the commercial value of the minerals that can be extracted. It lies in understanding the operation’s potential as a catalyst for human development and societal progress, embracing sustainability practices from multiple disciplines and thoroughly planning in advance for closure.
Ndzipho says: “Much of a mine’s environmental footprint and economic sustainability depends on thoughtful, future-focused site layout. Well planned and laid out sites can mitigate, or avoid entirely, many unnecessary risks and costs. Innovations in evaluating ground conditions – a key factor in selecting sites for mine infrastructure such as tailing facilities and waste rock dump sites – have already transformed the way we survey and collect data at the potential mine site. These innovations provide a wealth of information in a faster timeframe, allowing improved planning and layout decisions for the mine and its supporting infrastructure. Companies are shifting to more effective tactics for choosing the best possible sites that consider future closure costs and land-use objectives post-closure.”
Design, construction and operations must also take a future-focused approach, embracing ESG principles at every opportunity. WSP leverages the full spectrum of its combined services and multidisciplinary teams to not only help clients plan and develop their ESG strategy across the entire lifecycle of the mine, but also to implement both engineering and non-engineering solutions that will support achievement of their goals.
Embracing circular economy principles
Bloemhof indicates that taking a circular approach is key to supporting the mining sector as it transitions from developing good plans and strategies, to implementing these strategies and making meaningful headway in ESG pursuits. “There are three principles that underpin circularity, and these same principles also play a key role in a more sustainable mining sector.”
“The lifespan and usage of the mining operation must be maximised to extract the highest possible value, which must include responsible retirement of assets during mine closure. Furthermore, by-products and “waste” in a circular economy must be recovered and reused as far as possible. The most common application of this last principle in mining involves reprocessing tailings materials to extract left over minerals and construction materials. The responsible management of water resources is critical here too,” says Bloemhof.
Other increasingly common trends in the pursuit of zero carbon footprint mining include using electric mobile fleets for reduced fuel consumption and improved air quality; using variable speed ventilation fans to reduce energy consumption; using “Smart Tracking” to allow for optimised operation of ventilation and fleet management and optimising extraction methods to reduce the amount of waste material.
One more way that WSP aids mining operations to meet their ESG requirements is through designing an ESG scorecard. It captures and quantifies ESG metrics with the ability to customise according to mining clients’ commitments and has been incorporated on several projects on which the company has consulted, unlocking opportunities for other ESG-related improvements.
According to Ndzipho, in addition to examining the mining operation itself for opportunities to implement ESG practices, one of the easiest things that a mining company can do is address their building efficiency, especially if constructing a new building. “Applying green building principles - that have been considered best practice in the commercial property space for some time - to on-site construction can enable a company to leapfrog its sustainability ambitions from the outset. For example, the construction of buildings can be done in a way to minimise wastage; buildings can be designed with water efficient fittings in mind, and they can integrate renewable energy sources such as Photovoltaic Solar system (PV) tied to the grid or as part of on-site hybrid power solutions.”
Taking a Future Ready approach to buildings by designing and constructing them with post-closure in mind can not only address ESG requirements in the here-and-now but can help to ensure that operational infrastructure can meet local requirements when the mine reaches end-of-life. Often, buildings cannot be handed over upon closure due to service requirements and other considerations that render them unfit for use in the changed local context. Where modular construction and other future-looking approaches from the onset make for more durable infrastructure.
When it’s time to reclaim the land
If mines aren’t properly closed and reclaimed after use, they can present a significant hazard to the surrounding environment and the communities who live there. There may be hazardous waste on the premises, which can contaminate soil and water and pose harm to nearby human and animal populations. But it is worth noting that “reclaiming” mines doesn’t have to mean returning them to pre-mining conditions. In fact, this often doesn’t serve the needs of local communities that have grown around the operation. Rather, reclaiming mines can, and often should, mean repurposing the location and infrastructure to meet the needs of a changed local context, putting the land and buildings to use in ways that are more viable and beneficial.
“In keeping with the principles of a circular economy, we work with mining clients to focus their closure planning, and concurrent contaminated land rehabilitation planning, beyond ensuring they have the financial means to implement the conditions of environmental authorisations. Instead, we work towards limiting or reducing adverse effects on the receiving environment. Opportunities include incorporating clients’ long-term considerations and potential liabilities into their operational designs to avoid and/or mitigate closure liabilities altogether, rather than simply planning to manage them in the future. For mining clients to retire their assets responsibly, closures must be thoroughly planned in advance and sufficient financial provision made for the retirement of assets,” adds Bloemhof.
Smarter planning and integration of closure considerations from the beginning can avoid and / or materially reduce liabilities and ensure flexibility at closure to maximise benefits that are matched to the changing local context.
“When the mine closes,” Ndzipho explains, “the intent is to leave a positive legacy and not a waste land. This means planning for closure in a way that includes community upliftment and anticipates the way their needs will have changed by the time the mine ceases to operate. Land restoration is, of course, one important consideration. Repurposing ancillary mine infrastructure to stimulate economic diversification and provide new, relevant infrastructure for the community must be, too.”
“As the world evolves toward a green economy, mining will become more important than ever. There will be a significant increase in demand for the metals and minerals that underpin green technologies like electric vehicles, solar panels, and wind turbines. Responsible mining – and rising to the challenge of meeting ESG requirements – go hand in hand. The mining industry in Africa, as integral as it is to the continent's economic growth, also has an important part to play in a greener future. As counter intuitive as it may seem on the surface, mining can, as an industry, lead the way into a more environmentally and socially responsible future,” concludes Ndzipho.