The mining industry has embraced the concept of sustainability and the so-called triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental sustainability. They see this as a means of securing their social licence to operate and gaining an edge over competitors in an increasingly discerning and ethical marketplace.
Many people, however, remain skeptical and are unimpressed despite the fact that the mining industry is Western Australia’s biggest spender on environmental programmes. They are unimpressed because of the scarred landscape, poisoned rivers and other legacies of poor past mining practices and dramatic footage of environmental disasters at places like Ok Tedi and the Esmarelda Mine in Romania. Many would also argue that the extraction of finite mineral resources cannot by its very nature be sustainable.
We need mines to source the raw materials that sustain our life-style as has always been the case. The stone quarries of the ancients, the ochre mines of the Aboriginals and, even the salt licks of the elephants are all testament to this. The problem is that our high population and modern lifestyle demands large quantities of raw materials, which means more and larger mines. These mines need to be operated efficiently so that finite resources are not unnecessarily depleted and, unacceptable environmental harm and long-term legacies are avoided. They would ideally be managed so that generated wealth delivers economic, social and environmental benefit to the region. Mining sustainability is therefore about the efficient extraction of the raw materials required to meet societies needs and the delivery of economic, social and environmental benefits to the region.
One strategy for achieving this vision of sustainable mining is the development of sustainability accreditation. The parameters for such an accreditation system are yet to be defined but would encompass both system and performance aspects. Certification to the ISO 14001 Environmental Management System Standard is a logical starting point for the systems components. There is no equivalent Standard for performance but the concept of benchmarking to Best Practice for critical aspects is another logical starting point. The critical aspects would need to be agreed among key stakeholders including the mining operation, the community and regulatory bodies. Such a system would be a dynamic driver for continually improving performance but incentives to encourage the mining industry to pursue Sustainability Accreditation would need to be considered. These could include:
- Public endorsement of accredited mining houses by reputable and respected NGOs.
- Listing on the stock-exchange as an ethical mining house.
- Preferential access to the development of new ore-bodies.
- Fast-tracking of the regulatory approval process
- Waivers of performance bonds.
- Self-managed as opposed to prescribed license conditions.