Closure is the only certainty in mining: are we solving the right problem?
The pressures on mine closure
New mining projects can positively transform the social, economic, and technological landscape of a region. But closure of a mining project often unintentionally creates a stereotypical “boom and bust” cycle, creating economic, environmental, and social challenges for stakeholders. Like many major drivers of economic growth, mining projects have the potential to mold multigenerational social architecture at the same time as modifying the surrounding environment, communities, and region to have a positive outcome.
With the increasing demand for critical minerals and the advancement of “green” technologies to slow the advance of climate change, mining operations will continue to be more prominent and widespread. Even with increased effort in recycling and reuse of metals, there is simply not enough material in circulation to avoid a ramp up in the number of mining projects globally. This will challenge the industry to find solutions for a greater number of communities and regions. Local communities will face the challenge of departing human capital as mine cycles end, with trained, skilled workers leaving communities as mining operations wind down to find the next opportunity.
The wave of departing workers has real impacts on communities facing shrinking social benefits afforded by the influx creating economic activity and human capital. So, with briefer lifecycles, and more remote host communities, a more drastic effect is likely.
Despite these new or emerging paradigms, planned reclamation and closure is still one of the lowest priorities in mining decision-making frameworks. Included in the Paris 2050 Agreement and UNDRIP, there is an ever-shifting regulatory landscape and new investor and consumer environmental, social –and governance (ESG) pressures. Yet a recent study from the Arabian Journal of Geoscience surveyed 60 mining experts on ranking what criteria is important to begin underground mining operations. The researchers found reclamation ranked as having the lowest importance in decision-making.
A study in early 2022, involving researchers from several Brazilian universities, found that mine closure in their country represented one of the top five greatest operational risks, and recommended that planning for closure could help improve operational performance while lowering environmental, socioeconomic, health, and safety impacts.
Likewise, inaccurate approaches to mine closure cost estimating carries significant risk. An Australian study presented in the International Conference on Mine Closure found that rigorous closure estimates could be as high as double the initial budget in the Australian mining space. This is further confirmed by a guide from the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development, where “mine closure costs have been underestimated, partly due to a lack of understanding of the complexity of the task.”
Mine closure practices have shown success
Many international, national and company standards addressing mine closure and reclamation exist, providing extensive resources that often exceed regulatory requirements. Best practices for mine closure include Canada’s own Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) mine closure framework which is frequently being adopted in other nations.
Resulting closure plans and strategies aim to mitigate socio-economic impacts and return mine sites to viable and diverse ecosystems that will serve the needs of post-mining use of the land. The principal objective has been to bring ‘planning for closure’ into the design phase, with progressive reclamation as the project progresses.
There has been progress to celebrate within the Canadian context. We can compare the closure plans and approaches of the mines of today with those of the 1940s, the Giant mine in the Northwest Territories, and other “historic sites.”
Modern closure and remediation processes take significant steps to ensure there is long-term chemical and physical stability to a closed mine site.
The Hollinger legacy project in Timmins is one example of community reclamation – a way to use the excavation from gold mining to create recreational value for the host community. The agreement between industry and community was signed before operations ended; an example of why good stakeholder engagement and putting a plan for closure in place long before it arrives can lead to positive outcomes. The Hollinger legacy project demonstrates both the risk of poor closure planning as well as how proper prioritization from industry and community can build a better future for mine sites.
Georgina Pearman’s 101 Things to Do with a Hole in the Ground lists popular examples from around the world where old mines have been converted into opportunities for socioeconomic development and growth. Examples include creating spaces for recreation, science, technology, medicine, and energy generation.
Despite having abundant available best practices and resources, why are the notable international examples not yet the new standard?
Are we solving the right problem?
For all mining projects, exploration leads to evaluation which, in some cases, leads to development, construction, production and then closure.
The trend for greater collaboration and stakeholder engagement when planning mine closure is a part of our new paradigm – as a report from CSA Group in 2020 highlights greater expectation around mine closure having social and economic benefit. This will necessitate greater multi-stakeholder engagement, earlier and better-informed consultation, and stronger collaboration between parties in planning for the future.
One needs to consider the question: Is optimizing the current process alone going to solve the closure challenge for us and our stakeholders?
Some examples of key questions that lead to a different way of thinking about the closure challenge with more sustainable outcomes include:
1 To what extent have we gone past consultation processes and co-designed a vision for the future that mining can enable with our host communities?
Impact benefit agreements are set up for those whose lives will be affected in all the stages of the mining process. If impacts of mining extend beyond this process, then how can we engage communities early to ensure we understand their visions for a future that a post-extraction use of the land and assets can enable?
2 To what extent are we being good neighbors during the project vs. being good citizens who are designing with the end in mind?
Because human, social, intellectual, and cultural capital extends far beyond the fence line of a site, why does closure focus on the impacts of mining in a region through a site-specific lens? Mining projects aren’t confined to development of a mine site, mining operations can impact the development of an entire region. If mine sites can be collaborative with local, regional, or national government agendas, mining can enable more economic and social possibilities. This can even be more effective through the inclusion and prioritization of Indigenous governments and voices of Indigenous leadership.
3 To what extent are we embracing the circular economy that many of our minerals and metals are increasingly becoming a part of?
Cradle to cradle thinking reprioritizes our design for a circular economy – we should be designing for what the mine sites and assets become after extraction is complete. For example, how can modular units on sites be designed to build homes and facilities in local communities? How can mine sites be used to support new infrastructure projects to deliver lasting benefits for the region even after all the miners have left?
Some say, “the only certainty in mining is closure.” A closed site is the legacy left behind for future generations. Looking at closure through the life-of-asset lens when designing and planning, as opposed to only the life-of-mine, mining companies have the potential to make good otherwise lost value for not just all their current stakeholders but for future generations.
Stephan Theben is managing principal and mining sector leader, SLR Consulting, Canada and Charlie Ursell is a consultant and managing partner at Coeuraj Consulting.