It’s no secret: After decades of considering environmental performance as second priority, the mining industry urgently needs to regain the trust of communities, project stakeholders and funding partners. Using digital technologies to provide transparency through real-time environmental information can help the industry improve its reputation and rebuild trust.
Digital technologies are making it easier to collect and share environmental data. CREDIT: ADOBE STOCK/TOM SPARK
In the past decade, mining companies have been improving their practices to prove that they are responsible corporate citizens. Canadian firms were the first to embrace corporate social responsibility (CSR) and they have adopted stricter environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria in response to new regulatory requirements and national initiatives like Towards Sustainable Mining and ECOLOGO certification. These strides are important, but more still needs to be done to convince the general public of the commitments made by the mining industry. With growing worldwide concern about issues like water and air quality, the industry needs to step up its efforts to reassure the public that it is committed to environmental stewardship. Without a major concerted effort, mining companies will continue to face challenges such as push-back from communities – especially from the younger generation – as well as permitting issues and a labour shortage.
In today’s world, digital technologies make data monitoring simple. It’s easy to monitor environmental indicators and share data in real time on the web. Also, considering that other ESG factors, such as worker rights or health and safety records, can’t be so easily measured by technology, being transparent about environmental factors is relatively simple to achieve.
“Transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of good governance in all economic sectors, and especially in mining,” said François Vezina, vice-president, technical services at Osisko Development Corp. “Gaining public trust is crucial to the future of our industry. With the right actions, we can improve conditions for workers, communities and ecosystems, and position the industry as a responsible contributor to the modern economy.”
Real-time environmental data collection and sharing solutions – like battery-operated sensors, 5G technology and digital platforms – already exist and are easy to implement. In fact, similar setups are already used at operational mine sites, though the data is only reviewed periodically and compiled into late-stage reports. Recognizing the need to change stakeholder perceptions with transparency, we can use these existing technologies to give the public 24/7 access to environmental indicators and, in doing so, show good faith to those who are worried about mining operations’ impacts.
For example, water quality monitoring devices could be installed downstream from a mine site – closer to towns or sensitive areas – and contaminant levels could be displayed on a public website. This would allow individuals, environmental groups and elected officials to keep watch over water quality in nearby streams, rivers and lakes.
To make such an initiative successful, corporate decision-makers need to understand the importance of the user experience. The communication platform needs to be carefully designed by UX experts so that members of the public can easily understand the data, including the threshold values of the various factors. A confusing interface that does not promote transparency will only seed frustration. The platform could also provide a bidirectional communication channel for users to post questions of their own.
A paradigm shift in communications and accountability
Providing raw data in real time changes the corporate-public communications model. It opens the door to dialogue and feedback, while empowering community actors to hold mining companies accountable for taking swift action when needed.
That said, the idea isn’t to force the public into a watchdog role. Environmental monitoring remains the responsibility of mining companies. “Posting data publicly will build stakeholders’ trust since it gives community actors a guarantee that they won’t be kept in the dark about worrying trends or only find out about problems once serious environmental damage has occurred,” explains Vincent Clément, director, environment at BBA. “It also implicitly requires mining companies to track environmental data in real time – not just at periodic intervals, as is the standard practice – and respond with effective measures before the public sounds the alarm.”
What’s the return on investment?
Investing in digital technologies to increase transparency promises to pay dividends. The technical aspects, such as installing sensors and creating an online platform, have quite a low capital cost. More substantial expenditures are associated with new process creation, change management and personnel training, as well as the cost of actually applying corrective measures. However, executive committees must realize that these expenditures aren’t a luxury; they’re part of a crucial transformation of the mining business.
You can’t quantify the cost of lost trust. In failing to think proactively and respond adequately to concerns, the mining industry has already experienced a massive loss in public confidence, leaving companies exposed to the risk of losing their licence to operate and struggling to get approval for new projects, both locally and globally.
Real-time data sharing should be included in all new mining projects and added to existing operations. As the practice becomes more widespread, it will become a standard that communities expect. Monitoring tools could keep track of water quality and volumes, airborne particulates and even noise levels.
Collecting large volumes of data today can also lead to better practices tomorrow.
“Artificial intelligence can look for relationships between environmental fluctuations and factors such as temperature, rainfall or humidity levels,” says Michel Serres, innovation and digital transformation strategic advisor at BBA. “These insights could help environmental scientists figure out how to plan mining activities differently, making the industry more sustainable overall.”
What will it take?
Executives must be willing to uphold their companies’ ESG commitments. A new mindset is needed at the governance level to transform the mining industry’s practices and rebuild its reputation, one project at a time. While real-time environmental data sharing is intended to be just one part of a broader ESG strategy, it’s a concrete measure that companies can implement today. As such, it’s a direction that merits immediate consideration and should be included in mining companies’ digital roadmaps and business transformation plans.
Under executive leadership, mining companies may embrace an even bigger change. The industry can set a new target: building trust with a larger audience, the consumer world. Open data will give the world access to new datasets, including things like company name, geography or type of metal. With this shift toward open source, the industry will be able to benchmark and reward environmental champions, best-in-class performance and industry frontrunners. These leaders will position themselves for greater operational certainty, better environmental management, improved market access and overall competitive advantage.
Trust is everything, and it should be the foundation of our industry’s future. Jerome Pelletier is Executive Director, Business Development with BBA.