Environmental impact assessment for mining projects

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2016

Rhiannon Garth Jones talks to Simon Aldrich about how environmental and social impact assessments have become vital for mining companies hoping to get projects off the ground.

Tell me a little bit about your background. 

After studying at the University of Cambridge and a period researching tropical island environments, I worked for a business consultancy advising start-ups on business development, strategy and marketing. I then applied this experience by joining an environmental and engineering consultancy. I have also worked on a range of major development projects and have helped to create environmental policy and strategy for both government and corporate clients.

How have environmental requirements for the mining sector changed over the last few years?

They have become more important than ever. One of the most obvious places we can see this is when companies try to secure financing for projects. Performance standards from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) are being applied more widely by potential investors than in previous years.

While such standards were formerly applied mainly by banks directly affiliated with the IFC, they are gradually being used by other banks as well. This may well mean that a funding application is turned down if a company cannot demonstrate its ability to meet IFC standards at an operational level.

Are these IFC standards equally important across the world?

Increasingly so, yes. Many of the major projects we’re involved in on all continents are either linked to international companies or have an international finance dimension to them, so we find that most of our international environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and environmental and social impact assessments (ESIAs) are based on these international guidelines.

What are the other benefits? 

Compliance with IFC standards does come with additional benefits. In adhering to these standards, mining companies will automatically gain international acceptability and positive recognition within the industry and among investors in particular. Additionally, adherence to these standards demonstrates that mining operators have done everything in their power to minimise environmental risks and have put best practices into place.

How significant has this made EIA work for a large, global mining consultancies?

The mining industry is one of Golder’s top client sectors and we have a large global practice in environmental assessment and impact reports. EIAs and ESIAs are definitely two of our main work streams. We perform EIAs and ESIAs in most countries around the world and typically have as many as 40 running at one time. Around 100 employees work in the EIA practice full-time, supported by around 800 specialists. 

Which risks do you find mining companies consider the most important when assessing a potential mine site?

One of the main issues for our mining clients is water – access to adequate supplies for a project and water quality in terms of legacy issues. After that we would put regulatory risks, as well as political and safety concerns in some parts of the world. 

For example, we recently conducted a water supply study for a mining operation in Mauritania that had to ensure 10–15 million litres of water per day during the 30 years of extraction in a remote location in the Sahara desert. 

Several long-term pumping tests in addition to almost 70 borehole drillings across a large area proved that a groundwater supply could be successfully established for the 7 million tonnes of iron ore per year that the project was predicted to produce. For this project, getting an early assessment was essential for realising the operation.

Are there other considerations that operators should be aware of when planning and carrying out operations?

Mining operators and companies should also take into consideration the cumulative impacts of mining operations. These are very important when there are a number of concessions in immediate zones of environmental impacts. Often, EIAs and ESIAs and permits can be undertaken considering the faculty and investment itself. However, it is becoming evident that often when there is more than one neighbouring concession, there can be undue pressure on surrounding infrastructure, resources and local communities beyond what is originally expected or scoped. 

Another study we recently undertook looked at the area around a mine to check whether it had the appropriate resources and infrastructure to support mining operations. It was concluded that the right conditions were available. However, there were also two other separate mining operations that were developing similar deposits in the area. While the area was able to support each mine individually, it was important to investigate whether the area could support all three simultaneously.

In some cases, it can be crucial to the success or failure of a project to evaluate commercial implications in tandem with the area surrounding a mine as the cumulative effects can rebound and adversely impact the original calculations of environmental and economic viability

What about other risks?

Another issue that is often on the list of potential impacts for an EIA for a new mine is climate change. For companies, this means having to design mines with a containment mechanism. If precipitation, for instance, is going to change over the lifecycle of the mine, which can be anywhere from 30–40 years, they will need to design a mine with those risks in mind.

Clients, however, don’t want to over- or under-engineer containment mechanisms because their up front costs could go up. This is where we are finding climate change analysis on its own becoming a valuable tool in EIAs.

Using the best available data and understanding the uncertainties means that the climate risk can be translated into project design investment and an appropriate level of mitigation engineering to manage impacts in response to expected climate change.

Do you have any other advice for companies when it comes to environmental impacts?

Local knowledge is often the key for assessing the environmental and social impact of any operation. Consequently, operations work best if the appointed specialists are already familiar with the local situation. At the same time, knowledge and expertise in international regulations are essential components. It’s a good mix of local and international knowledge that makes a project succeed.

Aside from that, the key word for any successful operation is ‘early’. Early planning and early environmental assessments are crucial if mining projects are to secure financing and permits.

Simon Aldrich is the leader of Golder Associates’ urban development and infrastructure team in the UK and a senior member of the environmental impact assessment team in Europe. He has worked on a wide range of infrastructure projects worldwide in environmental engineering, design and sustainability. Notable areas of expertise include high-speed rail, new sustainable cities, rail and aviation, natural resources and international environmental policy and strategy.