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Helping mines leverage the “S” in ESG

September 02, 2021

By Lauren Meyer

Addressing the social considerations of mining projects is key to maintaining a social license to operate

Recently, we’ve seen the mining industry embrace the concept of sustainability. It is growing to fully recognize the importance of sustainability when attracting investors and garnering support from local communities. Fundamental strides have been made, with environmental stewardship, advanced monitoring and maintenance, mine closure, and reclamation leading the charge.

Now, we are seeing a shift toward reductions in energy use, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions. Yet when it comes down to it, sustainability is about more than the environment. It has evolved to include Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards and focus on people as well as the planet. ESG requires addressing community and cultural impacts, as well as equity, equality, health, well-being, safety, and much more. These are the social considerations that make up the “S” in ESG.

ESG standards are increasingly becoming the measuring stick for how companies and organizations show they are living up to their promises of sustainability. Below, I’ll focus on the social aspects of ESG.  

Looking out for the “E” in ESG has been a long-standing focus for the mining industry.

Making the sustainability pledge

Many mining companies have pledged to follow standards set by various organizations such as the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) and the Mining Association of Canada’s Toward Sustainable Mining (TSM). Some have gone even further and set goals to be carbon neutral by 2050. Some have also pledged to improve water and energy efficiency by 2030.

Various regulatory bodies are following suit. Some agencies in North America and other countries require compliance with the ICMM standards for both new and existing facilities. Other countries have adopted the TSM. These commitments make it clear that the industry has recognized the importance of sustainability and strong ESG standards.

For many companies, the “E” oftentimes overshadows the “S” in ESG. But there are a handful of mining companies leading in social impacts. These companies can demonstrate how the industry can meet sustainability pledges by prioritizing the social aspects of ESG. In other words, putting people first. 

Stakeholder mapping and engagement sets the stage for improving social performance.

Following through on promises

Many guidelines and standards address ESG issues to improve sustainability in the mining industry. Sometimes, the sheer number of guidelines can be overwhelming. But intentions must be to make them more than just a box-ticking exercise.

This raises the question: How?

This is one area where most of the standards do not provide specific guidance. It leaves the execution to the mine while still requiring compliance. Nonetheless, common sustainability practices have been implemented within the civil engineering industry. These can be adopted by the mining industry. Some basics for improving social sustainability include:

  • Engage stakeholders throughout the mine’s life cycle. Determine how the project objectives align with the needs and goals of the local community.
  • Conduct stakeholder-mapping exercises and set clear objectives. Develop two-way communication and provide sufficient opportunities for stakeholders to be involved.
  • Develop communication between project leads and stakeholder groups to incorporate feedback into the process. Create feedback loops to gauge stakeholder satisfaction and establish grievance mechanisms.
  • Empower communities to engage in the development process. Ensure that impacts and benefits are distributed equitably throughout the affected communities.
  • Utilize community input to identify areas as historic or cultural resources. Avoid development in these areas and take steps to preserve or restore cultural resources.
  • Assess project impacts and reduce air and water pollution to improve the health of the community. Consider including critical infrastructure services to communities experiencing—or at risk of experiencing—imminent negative health effects or personal safety impacts.
  • Stimulate economic prosperity and development by creating local jobs during design, construction, and operation.
  • Develop local skills and capabilities through an inclusive culture of training programs.

Taking these steps to address community impacts and concerns can build trust and improve communication. But they also help mining companies maintain a strong social license to operate. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it also makes the company more attractive to potential investors.

Mine sites can impact the surrounding community and economy, making it important to work with local stakeholders throughout the mine’s life cycle.

Leveraging a multiplicity of benefits

Several mining companies have started to creatively address social principles in their plans. These serve as great examples of how a single design can result in many benefits for both the mine and the community. This is known as a multiplicity of benefits. Let’s look at some examples below.

When a mine in South America was looking to expand operations in an arid climate, the operators realized they needed more water. While looking for a solution, the mine reached out to the local community. They found out the community lacked the infrastructure to properly treat their wastewater. As a result, it was being discharged into a nearby river untreated. So, we developed a single solution to meet both challenges. How? By designing a wastewater treatment plant. This helped the mine meet their water demands, improve water resources, and enhance local living standards.

This innovative solution provided the water needed for the project. But it also enhanced the mine’s social license to operate. The citizens now have a significant reduction in health risks. Plus, their agricultural products are now accepted in international markets—they were previously rejected due to health risks. Aquatic life ecosystems have also recovered, leading to increased tourism in the region.

With the help of existing standards—and examples of unique solutions—mine designers and operators can take innovative steps to achieve sustainable development goals and meet sustainability pledges.

Here’s another example from a remote Indonesian mining complex. There, surface operators would stop work a few times a day so they could go to local areas of worship to pray. But the operators were planning to transition the mine from surface to underground operations. Taking several breaks for prayer was no longer feasible, and the owners needed to address these workers’ needs.

So, our underground engineering project team designed multiple mosques—with adjacent washing facilities—and chapels throughout the underground workings of the mine. Having these facilities on multiple levels allowed workers to fulfill their religious requirements while keeping operations moving efficiently. This reduced unplanned downtime or additional energy use to move workers several kilometers from underground to surface facilities.

These underground facilities work to contribute to an inclusive and welcoming work environment. And the efforts prioritize cultural understanding toward the local workforce while also improving operational efficiency. 

These examples demonstrate true benefits for both the community and the mining companies. Win-win scenarios like these create value for stakeholders—all the way through to the investment community.

Water treatment plants are a prime example of incorporating critical infrastructure services for host communities while also meeting operational needs.

Taking ESG head on

Prioritizing social considerations has become key to maintaining a social license to operate. With the help of existing standards—and examples of unique solutions—mines can take innovative steps to achieve sustainable development goals and meet sustainability pledges.

However, to leverage the benefits of ESG we must look at sustainability through a new lens. This new lens shifts our focus from ticking boxes to meeting ESG requirements. That is truly designing with sustainability in mind.

Sustainability should be incorporated into every phase of new or existing projects. And it should be a key element of the design, operations, and closure processes. Strong ESG standards will pave the path to success. 

  • Lauren Meyer

    Lauren is a geotechnical engineer based out of our Fort Collins office. She’s passionate about including sustainability in her everyday work and is committed to enhancing her clients’ environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.

    Contact Lauren
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