9. Environmental protection
Environmental and social considerations are key issues in the development of mining policy.
Unfortunately, there are many instances where communities have been affected by badly-managed, unconstrained or unregulated mining activity that has caused pollution of water, soil or air.
A key role of government is to ensure that communities are protected from any negative environmental impacts of mining. Some of the pollution impacts caused by poor mining practices include water and soil pollution from acid mine drainage, soil erosion or deforestation, spills from tailings dams and other waste facilities and climate change impacts from greenhouse gases. At a more local level, the dust and noise impacts of large mining trucks passing through rural areas can be disruptive for communities. The pollution of water and soil systems can affect the ability of communities to grow food crops in larger agricultural projects or in smaller community gardens.
A good environmental policy will address all these issues at the various stages of a mining project, including the post-closure stage.
Regulations often require mining companies to undertake environmental (and now environmental and social) impact assessments in the early phases of project approval, as a first step towards the implementation of sound environmental management practices.
Policy in practice: The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment Tool
The primary tool for managing environmental impacts from mining is the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA). This process usually targets larger scale mining operations, and has become a condition for mining in most places in the world. Sometimes the “social” component of the assessment is not explicitly stated. In these cases, the definition of “environment” in the policy can be extended to include social impact assessment and mitigation. However, many governments are now including the social component more explicitly to ensure that impacts on people are as important as assessing impacts on the environment.
There is also a trend toward including human rights’ impacts assessment as part of the ESIA, or as a separate process. Whether a government wishes to highlight the social component of an ESIA is a policy decision it must make.
While a full-blown ESIA is required for large scale mining in most countries, often a lesser form of this process is required for exploration projects or smaller scale mining operations. In these cases, an Environmental Statement or an Environmental Report may be the terminology used for the assessment of environmental impacts for these smaller projects. Some countries have taken the policy decision not to include a specific environmental impact assessment process for these less invasive projects.
Whilst designing environmental policy is usually the responsibility of the country’s environmental authority, mineral policy often includes this sub-element. This is because mining’s impacts on the environment tend to be the most significant of any industrial sector (unless there is a chemical manufacturing sector present), particularly when the country is not heavily industrialised. Also, the responsibility for managing the environmental impacts of mining can be shared between the mining authority and the environmental authority in some countries.
Other policy choices relate to whether the country has adopted various international protocols or principles, such as “polluter pays” or requires up-front mine reclamation bonds to be posted to ensure sufficient funding for environmental clean-up.
Companies operate on a tight timeframe when it comes to accessing and maintaining investment funding. They will benefit from the application of a clear environmental protection policy during the approval phase, for example, the requirement for timeframes regarding approvals for environmental and social impact assessments. Financial and possibly human resource impacts on a mining project can be severe if projects are delayed.
Companies will also benefit from an environmental authority that is sufficiently resourced to conduct regular, unbiased, on-site inspections during the life of mine. For example, the environment authority should not have to depend on the mine for transportation (vehicles or fuel) or accommodation at the mine site. Consideration of these issues during the policy development phase can determine whether a government department charged with a regulatory function may be compromised when it should accept support or help from the mine to carry out its work.