Environment Equipment People

How to design more sustainable mines

It’s never too early or late to make a mining operation more sustainable. Stantec’s Greg Gillian and Lauren Meyer join Carly Leonida to explore the benefits of an integrated design approach


As awareness around the need for greater sustainability in mining grows – sustainability in both metals production and maintenance of environmental and social standards – so too does interest in concepts and technologies that will help miners to achieve it.

Yet, in the face of rapidly declining ore grades, mounting waste dumps and higher operating costs, it can be hard to know where to start, let alone how to tie initiatives together over time to generate the best return on investment and achieve the greatest impacts.

Greg Gillian, Vice President of Mining, and Lauren Meyer, Co-lead of the Sustainable Mining by Design initiative, at engineering firm, Stantec, joined me to share their expert advice.

“What’s changed?” I asked them. “What’s driving this need to tread lightly on the landscape?”

“Stakeholders are certainly influencing mining companies’ decisions when it comes to sustainability, and not just financial stakeholders, but communities and other local groups too,” Gillian explained.

“There are a couple of places where we see the impact of this. First, mining companies are evolving their internal cultures; sustainability is becoming a core part of their moral compass and values.

“Another is the way in which mining companies are pulling the concept of sustainability out of traditional sustainability departments and making it part of their organisations. This allows them to emphasize their commitments to sustainability throughout their operations. There’s much greater awareness now of the need for this.”

Lowering risk, increasing profitability

Although sustainability-based projects can be seen as an added expense, if done right, they often improve mine profitability and lower risk over the long term.

Meyer weighed in: “There are lots of opportunities to drive profitability through greater sustainability,” she said.

“Whether it’s through decreasing operating costs by using electric vehicles or transitioning a mill from a traditional power source to a renewable one. These often come with larger upfront costs, but the technology ends up paying for itself and usually works out to be cheaper than fossil fuelled options in the long run.

“A huge bonus, particularly for the implementation of renewables, is that after the mine is closed, the power equipment at the site then becomes an asset. Not only can the company continue to make money, but it can also provide energy back to the grid and local communities. This helps to enhance the company’s social license to operate while driving down net present costs.”

It can also improve a project’s risk rating. By investing more capital upfront to utilise solutions that, for instance, dewater mine tailings and reduce the risk of a dam breach, mining companies could open the door to a greater range of investment options, lower lender rates and decrease their insurance premiums.

A social license to operate

Social licence to operate is another big risk for both investors and mining companies.

In many instances, land and water stewardship or biodiversity are the main source of disagreements with stakeholders. Although most mining companies are already implementing rigorous environmental controls, some still have issues building or maintaining trust with different groups.

Going forward, improved community engagement, providing jobs for locals, identifying projects that could generate shared value, and being transparent about mine impacts will be key to reducing that risk and maintaining funding opportunities.

“Trust issues stem from more than just environmental factors, so the mine design needs to address–holistically—the environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors that stakeholders care about,” said Gillian.

“Trust is built through repetitive interactions over time. But by showing that they are trying to move the bar forward when it comes to sustainability and sticking to their ESG commitments, mining companies will make headway.”

Meyer agreed: “To create that record of trust, companies must also share positive stories about how they’re treating people and the planet right. Everything we see and hear about mining today, tends to be negative, we need to make sure that those positive stories are being heard.”

Stantec engineers manage many remote mine sites and tailing storage facilities, like this one in the mountains of South America. Image: Stantec

Harnessing shared knowledge

The environment and the way we interact with it is a very visible part of mining. For many people, it’s a very emotive subject so it’s important that companies take ownership of their past performance, whether good or bad, and explain to stakeholders how they plan to improve.

It’s also important to leverage knowledge and best practices from outside of mining to accelerate internal sustainability efforts.

“We can learn a lot from other industries,” said Meyer, who works across multiple sectors including mining. “There are things that have already been done in civil engineering and transportation, for example, that we could draw insights from to improve future sustainability in mining.”

Gillian added: “The mining industry can be quite secretive, and not just about bad stuff, but good stuff too like intellectual property. There’s definitely an opportunity to share ideas and accelerate sustainability and innovation in mining. We’re starting to see that happen with initiatives like the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management, but all of us could do more.”

Greater sustainability in one area of a mine supply network can also influence other parts. For example, by building local supply capacity mines not only reduce their own risk of disruption, they also boost the local economy and encourage small businesses to grow and innovate.

Gillian pointed out that a diversified supply chain can create opportunities to better engage with communities and boost recruitment. And, by giving Indigenous communities a greater presence within the workforce, mines can capture some of the vast insights these groups bring in environmental stewardship.

Stantec is currently working on a mine closure project in northeastern Canada in partnership with a First Nations construction contractor. The two have joined forces to deliver the closure planning to construction phase, transforming the asset for a major mining company.

Although it’s still early days, Gillian feels the combined team is delivering the best possible value to the client.

Sustainable Mining by Design

This project demonstrates the power of Stantec’s Sustainable Mining by Design programme. This brings together the company’s expertise and experience in different areas of sustainability to create a life-of-mine approach that delivers holistic benefits.

“Sustainable Mining by Design is a philosophy that we apply from concept to closure of a mine,” Gillian explained.

“We do this by consciously implementing sustainable solutions across all the different design disciplines, enlisting experts from areas including energy, water and environmental stewardship, responsible consumption in production and climate resilience, to improve the overall sustainability of operations.

“It’s never too late to make a mine more sustainable. For operating mines, there are lots of incremental changes we can make that bring significant benefits. The more we, as an industry, integrate sustainability into our designs and design culture, the faster those barriers will break down now and in the future.”

Meyer added: “Obviously, if we’re designing a new project from scratch, then it’s easier to build sustainability into every aspect. However, if you’re rehabilitating a water treatment plant or expanding a concentrator, for example, then there’s no reason why you can’t incorporate sustainable solutions and work towards a better closure plan for the whole mine. This philosophy can be applied at any and every stage of mining.”

The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – were the catalyst for Sustainable Mining by Design.

While Stantec’s teams have been incorporating best practice in each of these areas into their mining projects since the agenda’s inception in 2015, the team wanted to formalise their approach in a way that reflects the interconnected nature of the goals and the ultimate aim of prosperity for people and the planet.

“As an engineering firm, it’s our goal to make sure that sustainability is incorporated into things like the placement of infrastructure, or that it’s reflected in the resource development plan,” Gillian explained. “And, often, it adds up to a better overall cost or a reduced risk profile for the project.”

Water closure is a critical component of both mining and mine closure. This plant is located at a mining operation in Canada. Image: Stantec

Mining for a mineral-intensive future

As we look to the future, mining operations and supply chains are becoming increasingly integrated and, to effectively drive decarbonisation, energy efficiency or waste valorisation across them requires an integrated approach created through superior design.

“We’re holding ourselves to higher standards going forward, as are consumers, users and the communities that we work in,” said Meyer. “Ultimately, mine stakeholders hold the social licence to operate. So, to continue mining, and provide the metals required for the green energy transition, we need to adapt more sustainable practices and technologies.”

Gillian concluded: “The International Energy Agency has said that, advancing into a battery-dependent age, the intensity of mining is going to increase. We have to provide more mining capacity, and it will require cooperation to make a real change in performance.

“Sustainability is not a siloed discipline. It’s complex, and the mining industry needs solutions which reflect that.”

To find out more about Sustainable Mining by Design, contact Stantec: askstantec@stantec.com

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