Responsible mining companies have developed, or are developing, detailed environmental management policies based on industry best practice. These govern their operations and how they affect the environment, setting out clear goals and commitments. The following are some of the key areas covered, with examples of the action large mining companies are taking:
Hazardous materials, waste and chemicals
Companies draw up detailed plans for handling these substances listing all the potentially hazardous materials, waste and chemicals used in, or produced by, their operations. The plans include measures to manage their use and mitigate their effects. For example, rigorous safety procedures and controls cover the storage, transportation, handling and use of explosive materials.
Environmental management of waste also influences the rehabilitation of areas affected by mining tailings. For example, rehabilitation work may involve the landscaping and/or profile capping of a facility to ensure it remains safe, stable and self-sustaining.
Water conservation and management
Water is both a key component in many mining activities and a key consideration in the task of minimising environmental impact. Responsible mines have detailed plans for conserving local water supplies, managing their own use, and ensuring that local supplies are not polluted. Therefore, detailed water-management plans will cover water conservation, water quality and toxicity. They may also help companies target reductions in their use of water.
Mines are often established in rural or wilderness areas that contain a wide range of animal and plant life. A key aim for responsible mining companies is to ensure that their operations do not impact negatively on the biodiversity of these areas. They may also actively seek to preserve or restore biodiversity by implementing biodiversity management plans.
Change of land use during mining is an important environmental issue, because it can potentially change the character of an area permanently. Responsible mining companies aim to minimise the impact of land use change, and where possible to restore land to its original state after mining has ended. Land reclamation is often a cornerstone of companies’ environmental policies, and planning for it begins even before a site becomes operational.
Energy, climate change and greenhouse gas emissions
The intensive use of fossil fuels, and the resulting carbon emissions, is as much a problem in the mining sector as in any other heavy industry. Responsible mining companies seek to minimise their energy use and to prevent the harmful emissions that potentially contribute to climate change. Energy efficiency is often a key focus, for example by improving the control and management of air circulation and cooling systems for deep mines. At large mines, these initiatives can result in substantial savings.
When a gold mine reaches the end of its productive life it should be shut down and left in a safe condition. Increasingly, the measures taken by responsible mining companies include the removal of surface buildings, recycling of materials and landscaping at and around the former mine. The work may include stabilising steep slopes, improving water and air quality and restoring local habitat.
Reporting, auditing and monitoring
As in the broader context of corporate social responsibility, to be credible companies must provide evidence of their environmental compliance. This is provided by monitoring and auditing processes that are systematic and transparent, and through regular reporting of results. The ISO 14001 standard provides a recognised international framework for reporting, auditing and monitoring.
All mining personnel need to understand the importance of good environmental practice and to appreciate their own role in ensuring compliance. Responsible mining companies have extensive training schemes to give employees the knowledge and skills they need, and to update them with new information.