A $40.8 billion industry, over 1,201 establishments and more than 596,000 direct and indirect jobs. Mining stakes are high and so are the risks.
According to Mining Association of Canada (MAC), the industry contributed approximately 3.4% to the GDP of Canada in 2016 with Ontario ($10.5 billion), Quebec ($8.6 billion), BC ($6.3 billion) and Saskatchewan ($5.5 billion) being the top contributing provinces. Mining not only is a source of export revenue but also supplies raw materials for the manufacturing of many commercial and consumer products like batteries, circuitry, display screens, electric cars, other vehicles and tires, musical instrument, sports equipment, wind turbines and many more. With so much riding on mining, any disaster big or small, in any mining operation attracts a great deal of attention from the government, the general public and the media.
MOUNT POLLEY INCIDENT
The most recent disaster to occur was the Mount Polley Incident in August of 2014 where the tailings pond of Mount Polley (owned by Imperial Metals) breached and released mining waste into nearby water bodies of the Cariboo region in BC. According to Dr. (‘Lyn) Anglin, Chief Scientific Officer at Imperial Metals and Chair at Association of Mineral Exploration (AME) during the Quesnel Gold Show, “We were very fortunate that there were no injuries, no fatalities and there is no evidence of any fish damage because of the actual event however, there was a lot of impact to the environment and the creek.”
Dr. Anglin goes on to explain that the company immediately started to address the environmental impacts and spent almost $7.0 million in remediation efforts which included complete reconstruction and restoration of the creek and a thorough inspection of the affected area. “There has been a lot of media coverage about the event but, not much on how the industry and company have responded” says Dr. Anglin.
TSM ASSESSMENT PROTOCOL
In 2004, MAC launched an initiative, Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) to improve overall industry standards and performance. These are assessment guidelines which outline benchmarks against which MAC members are evaluated. Each member reports their operations based on key performance indicators specifically pertaining to Tailings Management.
According to MAC, below are the performance indicators:
- Tailings management policy and commitment: To confirm that companies have established and effectively communicated a policy and commitment that expresses intention, commitments and principles in relation to tailings management.
- Tailings management system: To confirm that companies have a tailings management system in conformance with the tailings management framework in MAC’s A Guide to the Management of Tailings Facilities aimed at to providing a systematic structure for the assessment of risks, setting of performance objectives, implementation of activities to achieve performance objectives, assignment of responsibilities, and assurance processes to ensure that tailings facilities are managed safely and effectively.
- Assigned accountability and responsibility for tailings management: To confirm that accountability is assigned to an executive officer (CEO or COO), and that an appropriate management structure and resources are in place to provide assurance to the corporation that tailings are managed responsibly.
- Annual tailings management review: To confirm that there is an annual review of tailings management that is reported to the Accountable Executive Officer to ensure corporate governance over tailings facilities and to ensure that the company is satisfied that the tailings management organizational structures and systems are effective and continue to meet the needs of the organization.
- Operation, maintenance and surveillance (OMS) manual: To confirm that the company has developed and implemented a tailings OMS manual in conformance with MAC’s Developing an Operation, Maintenance and Surveillance Manual for Tailings and Water Management Facilities, to serve as a key component in implementing the tailings management system (Indicator 2), and to provide a reference point to facilitate continuity of knowledge regarding the tailings facility and its related requirements over time.
MAC believes that since the introduction of these protocols, the industry performance has greatly improved with over 90.0% of establishments achieving a Level A or higher rating in 2016.
Source: Facts & Figures 2017, Mining Association of Canada (MAC)
OTHER SAFETY MEASURES
According to Dr. Anglin, the mining permit process in itself is extremely rigorous. This not only tests the commitment of the mine operators but also makes sure that only the ones who have the resources to efficiently operate receive the permit. This in turn also builds confidence with local and global investors.
The Mount Polley Incident of 2014 urged the government and other relevant authorities to revisit the safety codes. However, Crownsmen Partners believes that to accurately eliminate any safety issues, it is imperative to first correctly identify the cause of the accident. In case of Mount Polley, it is widely believed that the dam of the tailing pond experienced a breach but according to Dr. Anglin, it was the improperly characterized clay material, approximately 8 meters below the base of the dam, which failed and lead to the disaster.
Following are few of the changes made to the safety measures after the Mount Polley Incident:
The changes to the safety measure were based on the premise that there was lack of compliance with the approved dam designs by the mine operator and lapse in design and structural monitoring by the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM)
- Independent Monitoring Committee: The BC auditor general Carol Bellringer in her inspection report of the Mount Polley Incident recommended to establish an independent crown corporation which will monitor the safety issues associated with mine operations in BC. The MEM in response set up a monitoring committee of deputy ministers from within the government itself.
- Health Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in BC: A sub-committee consisting of regulators, dam owners, first nations and consultants was also set up to revisit the Health Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in BC.
- The association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia (APEGBC), published their practice guideline Site Characterization for Dam Foundations in B.C. in 2016. These guidelines were targeted towards improving the standards of tailing system engineering.
- The Canadian Dam Association (CDA) and the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), which represent the Canadian and global scientific community and industry respectively, are also making revisions to their state of practice guidelines currently in place.
- Best Available Technologies for Safety: The government also mandated the mine operators to employ the best available technologies for water balance to enhance safety and reduce the risk of a dam failure. The Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) has also been designated as the evaluating authority for these technologies.
- Provincial Mining Code Improvements: These were primarily geared towards the design structure of the Tailing Storage Facilities (TSFs) and included evaluation on criteria such as TSF design requirements for the steepness of downhill slopes, a minimum static factor of safety, new seismic and flood design criteria, additional responsibility of the engineer of record to report any safety concerns to the regulator. Additionally, mine operators are also required to declare in their mine permit applications performance objectives that include programs for prediction, identification and management of physical, chemical and other risks associated with tailings facilities and dams. Mines with TSFs are also required to establish Independent Tailings Review Boards (TRBs) for monitoring and will submit an annual report showcasing their activities.
Moving forward, the additional strict safety guidelines do pose a hurdle from business perspective however, mine operators believe that this will make mining safer and more environmentally friendly which will build confidence in the public and the media.