27 January 2020

Sustainability in mining

There has recently been much discussion regarding climate change, recycling of materials, sustainability and social responsibility. Governments are promising to plant billions of trees per year. Our food packaging cannot be recycled (so why not make packaging that can?). Coal is dirty. Hydrocarbons are polluting the atmosphere. SF6 is more harmful than methane. There are plastic mountains in the ocean. Meat is bad. All gloom and doom.

Unfortunately mining, which always comes in for criticism, is at the top of the hit (or the beating) list. Let us consider for a moment the oldest profession. Genesis 2:11 and 12 tell us that 'The name of the first river is Pishon; it winds through the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is pure, and bdellium and onyx are found there”. These metals and minerals have always been associated with mining activities (and of course exploration and metallurgy, otherwise, how would people know where to find it, and how would they know it is pure?). In verse 15 the man is placed in the Garden of Eden “to cultivate and keep it”. Thus farming is the second oldest profession. Which brings us to the point of this history/theological lesson. If it can’t be grown, and it can’t be bred, it has to be mined.

If we consider the environment, many things we take for granted are extracted from the earth, and processed into something useful. A house is always a good starting point to assess this. Steel for the supporting girders is processed from iron ore, coal and other metals and minerals. Glass is processed from a specific type of silica sand. Door handles are made of brass (copper and zinc) if you are lucky enough to be able to afford it. Tiles and bathroom furniture traditionally was made from clay, and other additives, and fired using coal (Staffordshire was famous for “Vitreous China”). Then, of course, traditionally there are the services; copper wire, lead piping, metal piping, cast iron guttering. Many of these items are replaced by “plastic” items (PVC, uPVC, HDPE etc), which are created from processing various “fractions” derived from oil (extracted from the earth). Bricks are made from clay, and fired either using coal or other hydrocarbon, cement is mined, or quarried, and “processed” using coal. Slate, marble, alabaster, granite etc is mined, or quarried. Mining is important to us in many ways.

If we consider the computer, mobile/cell phone, the motor car, the refrigerator, the microwave, the vacuum cleaner or other aspects of our twenty first century life, many of the components have to be mined, and with the global populations increasing demand for these communication and labour saving devices, not all this demand can be met from recycling the old or discarded items.

However, in the quest to satisfy the global demand for minerals and metals, mining companies are realising that they have to be part of the solution to ensure the effect of mining on the environment is minimised as far as is possible. A single mining related disaster can wipe millions (if not billions) of pounds off the value of mining companies, send prices spiralling upwards, making our much loved gadgets and labour saving devices more and more expensive. Some of these events have had a severe impact on the environment, including Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Mariana and Brumadinho tailings dam failures, Baia Mare cyanide spill, etc. Mining is a risk industry, and there have been several disasters where loss of life has been a tragic consequence of the event.

Responsible mining companies are now looking to reduce the impact of their activities on the environment. This is where sustainability is important. Traditionally, a definition of sustainability would be “able to maintain operations at a certain rate or level”. More recently this has become “the ability to exist constantly. In the 21st century, it refers generally to the capacity for the biosphere (environment) and human civilisation to coexist”. To achieve this mining companies are now planning for closure (and rehabilitation) of the mine even before the first tonne of rock is removed. They are considering more suitable sources of energy (photovoltaic, wind, concentrated solar power, hydropower, even hybrids combining a number of “renewable” types of electricity generation). They are ensuring the local community will not be affected during the operation of the mine, or after the mine has closed. They are reconsidering the impact of the mining operation on the flora and fauna of the area, particularly the biodiversity and the interaction with the mining operations. Smelters and processing facilities are being designed to reduce the impact of the (sometimes toxic) by-products on the surrounding environment (treatment of emissions, waste treatment and impoundments, water treatment, product handling, reducing the visual impact of the operations etc.).

It is hoped then, that the next time you pick up your stainless steel knife and fork to eat the food off your bone china plate and drink your wine from a lead (or silver) crystal glass, having reserved a (cast iron) table at the local restaurant using the latest smart phone, and having been able to arrive on time for the reservation by car, bus or train, that you reflect that it is the mining industry that have (in part) allowed you to achieve this. So before we berate the mining industry for all the environmental evils in the world, consider that it is this responsible and sustainable mining industry that is striving to ensure that the biosphere and human civilisation continue to coexist for a very long time.

For those of you that want to learn a bit more about our long history of mining and mineral extraction, and the legacies and engineering consequences of our (now mostly defunct) mining operations, the IOM3 are organising a conference later this year (17–18 November) at Neville Hall, near Newcastle upon Tyne. Visit https://mininginstitute.org.uk for a trip back in time to when the world’s oldest professional mining organisation was developed, using Neville Hall for its meetings and tales of engineering excellence, man’s efforts to wrest resources from the earth’s crust and the associated perils. Neville Hall also houses the finest and largest coal mining library in the world.