The mining sector is not only faced with the challenge of reducing its environmental impact, but also dealing with the consequences of past environmental injury

Decades of abuse have taken their toll on the environment and, in turn, the communities living around mines.

According to Ingrid Watson, programme manager (biophysical environment) at the Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry (CSMI) at Wits University’s School of Mining Engineering, the declining resilience of the physical and the social environment means that neither can absorb mining’s negative impacts like they could in the past.

“This makes it imperative that mining companies understand the often precarious state of their surroundings, and accommodate this during their planning, start-up, operational and closure stages,” says Watson. She points to a recent shift in thinking that suggests humanity has moved the planet out of its Holocene period into an entirely new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – where humans are the primary force behind environmental changes.

“What this highlights is that the negative environmental impacts of industrial activity like mining are imposing themselves on an already potentially unstable situation,” she notes. “The results can be seen in the steadily rising tension between mines and other stakeholders – especially communities and the governments that represent them.” Underlying the global trend in tighter environmental legislation is the increasing level of competition for scarce – indeed, scarcer – resources such as clean water and arable land.

“Essentially what we are seeing is the planet’s environment ‘hitting back’ after decades if not centuries of abuse, arising from factors such as rising consumption levels and greenhouse gas emissions.” In a 2012 study of ‘the 10 sustainability megaforces’ affecting business, consulting group KPMG included climate change, water scarcity, ecosystem decline, deforestation and reduced food security. “Mines’ historical legacy was that it contributed to a number of these trends,” she reveals. “The sector is now faced with the challenge of not only reducing its environmental impact, but also dealing with the consequences of past environmental injury.”

Among these results is the social impact, adding to the resolve of many communities to actively oppose mining, says Watson, contributing to the increased importance of stakeholder engagement before projects can be authorised.

“Communities are now more aware that they will be the ones left to deal with the physical legacy of mining – the altered landscape that is seldom a positive change from an environmental point of view, although it can bring much needed jobs and infrastructure during the life of the mining operation,” she outlines.

While governments have applied stricter environmental controls on mining, it appears that the state is also recognising the full extent of the possible damage – and is no longer allowing companies to ....

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