Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sustainable Mining: is there such a thing?

Have you ever heard of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance [IRMA]? Until very recently, I hadn't. They are developing a set of standards for Responsible Mining that include Business Integrity, Social Responsibility, Environmental Responsibility, Closure and Reclamation and, Management Systems. Scanning the topic headings under these categories, I didn't see a heading for Risk Management. I think that's unfortunate, but I'm glad to see there's a multi-stakeholder process trying to develop a better process for mining that's closer to being sustainable than we have today.

Did you know that the International Standards Organization [ISO] has Risk Management Principles and Guidelines? As I read Minnesota's Financial Assurance Requirements for Mining, it's not clear to me where risk management fits with when and how we get to financial assurance for a Corrective Action Plan.

§ Subpart 1. Purpose. The purpose of financial assurance is to ensure that there is a source of funds to be used by the commissioner if the permittee fails to perform:

§ A. reclamation activities including closure and postclosure maintenance needed if operations cease;


§ B. corrective action as required by the commissioner if noncompliance with design and operating criteria in the permit to mine occurs.

Lake Superior scene
Lake Superior scene
Photo by J. Harrington

Would a catastrophic failure similar to the recent tailings basin failure that occurred in Canada be "noncompliance with design and operating criteria?" The point I'm trying to make is there seems to be, in the way Minnesota is trying to manage nonferrous mining, too much reliance on compliance and not enough on prevention. Those two concepts aren't the same. Now, I am not a lawyer and I'm not trying to be one here. I am trying to look at developing a mine as if it were similar to designing, constructing and operating a major new building. What I think I'm seeing in Minnesota's emphasis on regulating mining is the equivalent of "building to code." Building to code usually represents an approach that meets the mandated requirements legally mandated requirements called for. Too often, those are minimal, not best practices. Furthermore, the best design and construction in the world doesn't automatically involve operating and maintaining an entity as it was design to perform. Is the basis of the PolyMet's argument that financial assurance is addressed at the permitting stage, not at the SDEIS phase, based on a "building to code" philosophy? Is that what we want for Minnesota? Are we sure that our minimal requirements represent state of the art and best practices? I don't know the answers to these questions. I wish I did. I would like to see Minnesota actively involved in IRMA. I would like to see us using the ISO Risk Management framework and tools. I would definitely like to see us using the Integrative Design and Development approach used in green building. I would especially like to see mining in Minnesota commit to following a Natural Step process. As those folks note:
"The problem is not that we mine and use heavy metals, or use chemicals and compounds produced by society, or disrupt natural processes, or even temporarily interfere with people’s capacity to meet their basic needs. It is, rather, that our industrial system has developed so that substances extracted from the earth and produced by society will continue to build up indefinitely in natural systems. That means a progressive buildup of pollutants and substances that not only harm us directly but damage natural processes that have taken billions of years to develop."

(Starting tomorrow we will again return, at least temporarily, to our regular programming.)

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