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How the Mining Industry Is Cleaning Up Its Act

When one thinks of the mining industry, in most cases the idea of a “dirty” industry comes to mind. Historically the mining industry has had a poor reputation with its relationship to the environment, and has had to learn from its mistakes the hard way. But as we continue to develop new technological innovations, and we become more environmentally conscious, the mining industry is adapting with the times.

There are several common issues that have plagued the modern mining industry when it comes to environmental impact. Acid rock drainage (the outflow of acidic water from unearthed rock), toxic tailings, heavy power usage and waste management are just a few of the universal issues that most mining companies have to face when contemplating a mine.

In many countries, permitting standards have increased, forcing mining companies to find innovative new ways to mitigate their environmental impact. For example, the remediation of toxic tailing facilities is seeing new breakthroughs in bacterial treatment, and in some cases, the reuse of mine tailings to extract further metals and treat contaminated soil.  Advancements have also been made in the treatment of tailings through the use of lime, ashes, wood shavings, cement or other types of material to make a paste that serves as a waterproof barrier.

Mining operations require large amounts of power, creating a significant impact on local energy grids, but new applications in adopting clean technology, like the use of surface water solar panels on tailings ponds, have allowed for alternative energy to supplement power needs and even give back to nearby communities.

The marriage of mining and cleantech

The marriage of clean and green technology with mining operations is becoming more common as the industry looks to move towards a more sustainable future. Of course, reducing energy consumption has positive environmental effects, but it also translates into big cost savings for companies—an attractive prospect in a volatile market. Take, for example, the adoption of wind turbines at mine sites in Argentina, which now provide up to 20 percent of the electricity needed for operations and are some of the highest altitude wind generators in the world.

This certainly isn’t the only example of companies finding new ways to power their mine sites. Anglo American Platinum announced in early May it would be instituting five fuel cell operated mine locomotives in South Africa, with the locomotives being completely emission free and saving the company on energy costs.

Junior mining companies have jumped on the clean mining bandwagon as well; American Manganese has patented a unique extraction process to develop electrolytic manganese metal which would drastically reduce energy consumption costs from the traditional manganese refinement method of roasting, which requires large amounts of natural gas.

Driven by economics

So why is this happening? Why are mining companies suddenly cleaning up their act? Aside from the fact that more countries are signing legislation that requires stricter regulations within the industry, it is increasingly because new clean technologies are increasing industrial efficiency, and that means a better bottom line. In many cases, new clean technology is lowering mining companies’ power needs. Technology is even helping reduce water requirements, and/or remediating the produced water and mines of years past that are now leaching toxins. And that’s translating into cost savings for mining companies, which are being held increasingly accountable for their environmental impacts and are looking for ways to minimize the expenses of both the production phase of their operations, and reclamation (i.e. the mandated end-of-life cleanup expenses associated with mining in many jurisdictions, now).

Adoption of clean technology has been seen across all types of industries.  Retailers are finding alternative means to deliver products to their consumers with less packaging, transportation companies are retrofitting their fleets from diesel fuel to cleaner burning alternatives and water companies are using clean technology to develop new techniques to filter, manage and distribute life’s most precious resource. The mining industry is following suit by implementing clean technology to create a more sustainable industry.

It’s no secret that the mining industry has struggled with environmental concerns, and that is exactly why this merger between cleantech and mining can be beneficial for everyone involved. The mining industry will benefit from the application of new technology to improve efficiency and environmental stewardship, the cleantech industry will benefit from increased demand for research, development and production of new technology and ultimately the public will benefit from a mining industry that is cleaner, more responsible and less impactful on the environment.

A former managing director of the Cleantech Group, Dallas Kachan is executive director of the international Clean Mining Alliance. He is also managing partner of Kachan & Co., a cleantech research and advisory firm that does business worldwide from San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver.

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