Digging Deep to Ensure a Greener Legacy

Digging Deep to Ensure a Greener Legacy

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016 - 5:00pm

CAMPAIGN: Together, Creating Sustainable Value


As published in Ethical Performance magazine’s Best Practice Autumn 2015 edition.

The mining industry is heading towards a more sustainable future where a holistic approach to mine development is key to achieving a balance between strong financial returns and corporate social responsibility. At Goldcorp, sustainability is no longer a compliance issue, it’s a proactive approach to the way it does business.

We’ve adorned ourselves with it for thousands of years and its very existence made pirates dizzy with greed. Its applications range from micro-circuitry and medical products to the coating of astronauts’ helmets. A traditional storehouse of value throughout the centuries, gold has always been in high demand and today it’s no different. What’s changing though is the way it is mined and how that mining is managed.

The mining industry is heading towards a more sustainable future where a holistic approach to mine development is key. Sustainability is no longer a compliance issue, it’s a proactive way of doing business.

Jerry Danni is senior vp of sustainability at Goldcorp, the largest gold company in the world (based on market valuation), and says that the need to demonstrate sustainability at every step is more important than ever.

Goldcorp currently operates eight gold mines across the world as well as two joint venture mines. In addition to gold, the company extracts silver, copper, lead and zinc.

Operations are based on growth in six pillars of which sustainability is one, underpinned by an integrated sustainability management programme. “It’s a big challenge,” Danni admits.

Its Sustainability Excellence Management System (SEMS), focused on key environmental areas of land and water use, energy, air quality, tailings management and responsible mine closure, along with safety & health and social responsibility, has evolved over the last two years. The SEMS contains performance standards all mine sites are required to meet, including having written ‘life of mine’ closure plans. Every mine is different, differing in size of operation and in life span, and concurrent reclamation activity is taking place at all Goldcorp’s sites, he says.

Goldcorp’s Red Lake mine in Canada is one of the company’s top producers and has been operating for over 60 years, while others that have been operating for shorter periods and are now in various stages of closure. For example the company’s El Sauzal mine in Mexico is currently in ‘active closure’ with full closure taking anything between 2-3 years.

There are two aspects to a closure, Danni explains: the technical (ensuring the landscape is safe and stable) and the social (ensuring that together with local authorities, there is a plan for local communities to be self-sustaining after the mine closes). “And these two aspects work hand in glove,” he says.

The Goldcorp mine San Martin in Honduras has completed the full closure process and Danni is proud that the site has been successfully fully reclaimed. What used to be a mining camp is now the San Martin Ecology Centre, with a 31-room, eco-tourism hotel, a restaurant, swimming pool, sports courts, playing fields and other amenities. The hotel is surrounded by forest, interpretive trails, bird-watching gazebos and wildlife habitat for deer, puma, roadrunners, lizards and more. In 2008, Goldcorp donated 1,500 hectares of land to the San Martin Foundation, a not-for-profit organization created, with Goldcorp’s support, to provide citizens with lasting economic benefits and self-sufficiency.

Elsewhere on the reclaimed mine site, agribusinesses thrive. Goldcorp supports the hiring and training of local people in chicken and tilapia farming and in growing lemons, oranges and mangos, as well as indigenous plants that are a source of biofuel.

Several independent farmers are also cultivating biofuel seed crops to widen the circle of sustainability for generations to come. “It’s important to continue to support the local community,” says Danni.

The Marlin mine in Guatemala is also a case in point. Goldcorp has spent $30m over the course of 10 years in preparing for its closure. On the social side it began by creating educational opportunities – prior to the mine’s existence educational resources were scarce – as well as a training programme, teaching mechanical and electrical skills. “Skills that can go beyond a mining application,” says Danni.

Marlin started off as a surface mine and gradually evolved into an underground one. “So the open pit became a tailings storage area,” explains Danni.

Tailings are the waste that is left after the mined mineral has been removed from the ore and are often the most visible part of mining.

“Tailings is often slurry but at Marlin we were able to innovate with filtered tailings which means that the waste was dry and solid and the pit could be backfilled,” explains Danni.

This innovative technique solves three problems at once: it eliminates the need for a separate mine tailings storage facility that requires long-term monitoring and maintenance, eliminates the environmental risk from the pit’s exposed rock surfaces, and it restores the landscape to a more natural profile. Once the pit is backfilled, the area is landscaped and natural vegetation planted on the reclaimed hillside, leaving the countryside in a similar landscape to what there was before mining commenced. “It looks like regular countryside which is a goal of the mine closure,” says Danni.

The visual aspect is important but so is the geochemistry. “We also need to ensure the area is chemically stable too. Some ore bodies generate acid, so metals could get into the water and we need to avoid that.”

Tailings can be more than just an eyesore; for many communities they are perceived as a cause for concern. That’s why Goldcorp created the Tailings Stewardship Programme (TSP), an initiative that sets new standards in environmental, human and community safety that exceed existing industry and government regulations.

Danni describes the TSP as a subset of the company’s Sustainability Excellence Management System. “In mining, one of the biggest environmental risks is the tailings,” says Danni. “One failure is one failure too many. So the TSP requires a written tailings management and closure plan from the start, as well as active management of the tailings throughout operations. So that entails a full assessment of the project prior to construction too.” The programme embeds additional precautions such as a detailed dam evaluation and innovation sharing. Each site requires an Engineer of Record and scheduled third party reviews. “Most of this is already in place but it will ensure consistency at each site. It is a great step forward,” says Danni.

For Goldcorp, successful mines are those that not only yield significant amounts of gold, but also add value by integrating their activities with local and regional efforts to achieve self-sustaining social and economic development. It hopes that its understanding of local realities and concerns, while building social and economic capital, will be its legacy, supporting the well-being of present and future generations.

Comment from Simon Webley, Institute of Business Ethics

What is outstanding about Goldcorp’s sustainability policy is that in practice it changes a normally unsustainable operation – a mineral mine – into a productive and sustainable entity which will generate lasting economic benefits for the local communities. This is because Goldcorp builds in at the start of any mining operation, an exit strategy that is geared not only to restore the original landscape but provide services such as education and skills training for local people. Because they liaise with the local authorities in the process, the potential is for there to be a self-sustaining community after the mine closes. The problem of disposing of slurry and other waste (tailings) is tackled, where possible, by filtering it. This produces dry matter which is then used for back filing the pit.

Points of Note

  • Local people are involved in the long term plans for the mine.
  • Environmental degradation is minimized at all mining sites.
  • ‘Life of mine’ closure plans are available for all Goldcorp’s sites.
  • Being open about relations with local people where a mine is to be located.