Mining companies are the first to admit that the extraction of coal, gold, platinum, diamonds and other resources has traditionally impacted heavily on people and the planet.
‘The very nature of mining means that the industry is affected by – and has an impact on – the environment, and so the industry, despite its best efforts, faces many environ-mental challenges,’ according to the Chamber of Mines of South Africa (CMSA).
‘Some of these challenges are shared with other resources users – such as climate change, competition for land use and water security.
‘In South Africa, the situation is exacerbated by a legacy of more than 100 years of mining, where legislation, knowledge and technology that is available today had not been developed or deemed necessary in years gone by.’
Today’s miners are bound by ever-stricter environmental legislation (such as South Africa’s Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, National Environmental Management Act and National Water Act), and they also recognise the correlation between a healthy environment, prosperous communities and a thriving business.
The industry has welcomed the introduction of the ‘One Environmental System’ in South Africa, which aims to streamline environmental processes and reduce the conflict between legislation and compliance/permitting.
‘As to the rigour to which mining projects are subjected in terms of environmental management, all mining companies are required to undertake environmental impact assessments in advance of all mining projects beginning – or if there is a significant change to existing projects,’ says Stephinah Mudau, CMSA head of environment.
‘These require extensive consultation with all stakeholders, a high degree of public participation as well as numerous specialist studies. These studies assess all aspects of the environment including water and air quality, fauna, flora and archaeology.’
Many mining firms go above and beyond what is legally required, she adds, listing the following examples: ‘Northam Platinum’s new Booysendal mine falls within the Sekhukhune centre of plant endemism. Northam Platinum has taken far-reaching steps to act as punctilious guardian of this special area.
‘A phytoremediation research project, supported by AngloGold Ashanti, has been under way at Wits University for two decades. Phytoremediation refers to the use of plants – and their associated microorganisms – to stabilise or reduce contamination in soils. Using the knowledge accumulated in the research process, phytoremediation was implemented in the Varkenslaagte catchment in AngloGold Ashanti’s South Africa region.’
Then there’s the quest to integrate renewable energy – notably wind and solar photovoltaic – into mining operations.
Mining is a power-intensive business, even more so as falling mineral grades require more energy to extract each ton. This, coupled with rising energy prices and the pressure to reduce carbon emissions, means renewables are already more viable than diesel-fired generators in isolated, off-grid regions. And mines in grid-connected regions may follow.
‘The arguments for large investments in renewable energy go beyond sustainability and social responsibility, and have now become a solid economic reason for miners,’ states EY in a recent report.
According to Mudau: ‘Mining companies continually review energy-intensive processes to improve efficiencies, and have implemented a number of initiatives to reduce electricity consumption and emissions.
‘All major mining companies have climate change mitigation plans in place, which many companies report on in the form of voluntary submissions to the CDP [formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project] on an annual basis.
‘While climate change is a challenge for the mining industry, it also presents an opportunity – particularly for the platinum industry, as platinum group metals are used in technologies that bring about reduction in noxious gases.’
Meanwhile Harmony Gold has found a way to combine the remediation of post-mining land with low-carbon power generation and community empowerment.
In March 2016, the gold miner and their advisors Promethium Carbon launched an online toolkit for rehabilitating mining-impacted land to generate renewable energy, alleviate pressure on the national power grid and create jobs.
The toolkit is the outcome of a community-based renewable energy project on Harmony sites in South Africa’s Gauteng and North West provinces that involves the planting of fast-growing grass species as biomass crops for green-power generation. Like the Wits-AngloGold Ashanti research project, this clean-up process relies on phytoremediation.
Wayne Truter is a professor at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Plant Production and Soil Science, and affiliated to Grass SA. ‘Grass bioenergy production, as an example of phytoremediation, is a cost-effective energy supply, with a high rural economic development potential, is environmentally friendly, and has a positive impact on greenhouse gas production and soil conservation,’ he says.
‘Because of this, mining land rehabilitation is a catalytic opportunity to integrate energy needs and community development needs.’
Such legacy projects that provide environ-mental solutions as well as shared value for local communities beyond the presence of the mine, are becoming increasingly important.
Anglo American demonstrated this thinking early on when it developed the eMalahleni Water Reclamation plant, which went on to become the only mining initiative to be endorsed by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change: Momentum for Change Initiative in 2011. The plant recycles polluted mine water for reuse in the company’s coal operations and also feeds clean water into the municipal supply.
Water security is a serious challenge for African mines, as they often compete with local communities for scarce water resources. According to Themba Mkhwanazi, CEO of Anglo American Coal SA: ‘The eMalahleni Water Reclamation plant was designed with sustainability in mind. It takes into account the remaining 20- to 25-year life of contributing mines, and will cater for post-closure liabilities.
‘Ultimately it will help address long-term climate adaptation risks and promote a sustainable future for the region, providing better flexibility and self-sufficiency in terms of water usage – not only for the mines but for the surrounding communities in which we operate.’
Mudau explains that miners work closely with government and water users to find solutions in areas where water is not readily available, such as on the eastern limb of the Bushveld Complex.
‘One such example is the Lebalelo Water User Association,’ she says. ‘In 2001, a group of mining companies built a pipeline to secure access to water in the Steelpoort River basin and neighbouring sub-basins, situated in both the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces in South Africa.
‘As part of the agreement with regulatory authorities, 95 villages situated along the pipeline have been connected.’
Mining companies realise they need to meet the world’s changing needs. At the 2016 Mining Indaba, Mark Cutifani, CEO of Anglo American, posed the question of ‘how can we be smarter and more cost-effective in using technology to access those resources to meet both the ongoing needs of the consumer and the demands of wider society that our activities should be as carbon-neutral, water-neutral and environmentally sound as possible?’.
It’s not about digging harder and deeper – but smarter, argues Anglo American.
The group launched FutureSmart, an approach to sustainable mining operations that’s based on innovative technologies and intends to transform underground mining through automation, 3D technology and robotics. The initiative suggests (among other things) the replacement of traditional drill and blast practices with laser technology, which would be safer, quicker and more cost-effective in addition to reducing the environmental impact.
These examples certainly appear to validate Einstein’s theory that in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. Africa’s mining industry is already on its journey to reinventing itself and creating green – as well as socially responsible – opportunities.