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Measuring & monitoring mine environmental performance

A legacy of under investment in environmental concerns means that many mining companies still rely on spreadsheets to manage their data. It’s time to modernise, writes Carly Leonida

As interest in mineral provenance grows, so too does the need to accurately measure and report on the environmental and social performance of mining operations.

In this year’s edition of EY’s annual report, Top 10 Risks and Opportunities for Mining and Metals – a reliable bellwether for industry concerns – mining companies ranked environmental and social issues as their number one risk for the first time.

The report states: “As environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors become a bigger priority for investors, shareholders and a broader group of stakeholders, miners are doing more to integrate ESG into corporate strategies, decision-making and stakeholder reporting.

“Stakeholder pressure over issues such as biodiversity and water management are likely to intensify, requiring miners to progressively plan for mine closures and better manage the water-energy nexus to satisfy expectations.

“Companies are also under increasing pressure to take more responsibility for their impact on communities and go beyond their regulatory obligations. Miners that help drive the long-term, sustainable economic and social growth of the regions in which they operate can leave a positive legacy beyond life of mine.”

As the report hints, it’s impossible to separate the interests of communities from the environments they rely upon for shelter, sustenance, and spirituality. Mining companies may never fully understand this association, but they can demonstrate their responsibility as an actor within a landscape and earn the trust of stakeholders by striving to minimise the impacts of their operations on both parties.

In its 2021 report, Guidance for Governments: Environmental Management and Mining Governance, The Intergovernmental Forum on Mining Minerals and Metals and Sustainable Development explains:

“Mining [ore] deposits will always impact the environment and communities to a greater or lesser extent. The active and sustainable management of ecosystems and natural resources before, during, and after mining will help avoid negative impacts where possible (which may mean excluding mining in certain cases) and can minimise them elsewhere, remediate as necessary, and improve when feasible.

“Conversely, a failure to effectively manage the impacts of mining can not only threaten the continued viability of operations but can also undermine the relationships between a mining company, affected communities, and all levels of government.”

Preparing for the data avalanche

To ensure that extraction and restoration activities have a net positive effect requires proper measurement and recording of impacts over the life of mine. Using this information, informed decisions can be made and meaningful actions taken.

As the plethora of digitally enabled devices on mine sites grows, so too will the opportunities to collect information in areas such as water stewardship, the preservation and promotion of biodiversity and waste management.

Better management of environmental data could reveal new opportunities to protect and promote biodiversity. Image: Pixabay

In fact, a 2020 research report from satellite communications specialist, Inmarsat, found that environmental monitoring was the number one driver of IoT uptake in the mining sector.

“[The Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to] dramatically reduce the impact of mining operations on the environment,” said the company.

In the future, the need for high quality environmental data for use in reporting and sophisticated compliance checks will increase, so that environmental incidents and non-compliance can be avoided.

But what to do with the data collected?

And, once it is collected, how can mines ensure that their data is stored in a way that is secure yet accessible and easy to analyse?

For mines that are not yet setup to properly handle it, the avalanche of data from IoT-connected monitoring devices and systems can seem overwhelming. Without proper management platforms and practices, opportunities for performance improvements could be missed and so too could critical data required for permitting and compliance exercises.

Keeping up with compliance

Traditionally, national, regional or state-level legislation has been the main driver for mine sites to invest in environmental monitoring equipment, processes and data management systems.

Henrik Frijs, Head of Sales and Marketing at EHS Data, the developer of MonitorPro, explained: “Authorities have been the main driver for issuing environmental permits and maintaining enforcement on compliance.

“In recent years, permits have become stricter, and require broader, more frequent and ever more refined monitoring. This increase in data volumes, coupled with more complex and specific compliance requirements, makes having a robust data management solution a must-have for any responsible mine operation.”

Authorities have generally upheld environmental compliance through regulation and financial tools, such as fines for non-compliance. These principles are broadly based upon the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) concepts.

“We have also started to see some of the larger players in the market mandate solutions at a site level to offer more corporate visibility of once localised data,” Frijs said. “This is typically brought about by a desire to meet corporate governance, and central reporting needs.”

Having one common environmental data management solution can give organisations better visibility to understand their corporate liabilities, where issues are, and knowledge to tackle them with the appropriate resources.

This investment might go beyond what is strictly needed at a local level, particularly where mining is being conducted in countries still developing their environmental regulatory legislation. Although this approach is far from universal, it does set a standard and will encourage other operators to follow suit.

From cost to key

Historically, mining companies have seen environmental performance (which requires monitoring and compliance metrics) as a cost base or a simple overhead which needs to be minimised. However, this is slowly changing.

“More local and regional communities are starting to place social and environmental demands on mine sites more directly,” said Frijs.

“As technology improves, data is ever more available and accessible (such as some requirements for companies to post monitoring data on their public websites). People can see what is happening on their doorstep, so they are able to educate themselves as to what it means, and operators are becoming aware of this fact.”

This infographic from the IGF outlines the importance of environmental monitoring in mining. Image: IGF

A social license to operate demands transparency alongside social and environmental excellence. And, today, the consequences of non-compliance and failure to present performance data in a coherent manner reach much further than miner’s pockets.

As such, awareness is growing that environmental and social performance is no longer a cost; rather a cornerstone of mining companies’ right to mine in an area.

Investing for the future

As environmental concerns have largely been considered a cost in the past, many companies have chosen to minimise their spend in initiatives or departments dealing with them. This means that data is often collected manually and stored in spreadsheets or rudimentary databases.

“The longer this goes on, the costlier the transition to an ordered system is, when it does eventually happen,” Frijs explained.

“It’s likely that much of this legacy data will never be able to be validated or the reader have confidence in making decision upon it, as they cannot validate its source, validity or accuracy. The more complex or sophisticated the requirements get, the less sustainable the spreadsheets become.”

It’s no longer acceptable to operate or make decisions based upon unqualified data, un-proven calculations, manual data transfers from spreadsheet to spreadsheet, and it’s very difficult to create reliable reports based upon data of this nature.

By organising and managing data in a professional database, all stakeholders (local residents, regulators, shareholders, staff) can be assured that it is collected on time, validated, qualified, and is easy to obtain and reproduce.

Local environmental teams can also increase their efficiency through automated data capture, and compliance risks reduced through planning, compliance checking, automatic calculations, alerts and scheduled reporting tools.

If need be, teams can present and communicate current situations through advanced analytical tools and satellite imagery or mapping solutions, which can be presented to the corporate team or local stakeholders.

Additionally, time is freed up for staff to trend and analyse data, and local and corporate managers can better foresee performance or occurrences through trend analysis. Managers can also be confident that authorities receive environmental reports on time and containing reliable data.

Goodbye spreadsheets

In short, modern, professional data management tools will help responsible mining companies to meet increasing demands for environmental performance and regulation.

Intrinsic, transparent environmental performance is the ultimate goal. However, without proper measurement and data management, that will not be achievable.

It was a long time ago, that finance departments and production operations moved away from pen and paper and spreadsheets.

The time for environmental departments to modernise is now.

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