Developing a mineral deposit into a producing operation tends to be a long and difficult process. An issue that is becoming ever more important is identifying and mitigating potential environmental and social impacts related to the development of a mine.
One of the first tasks that an exploration or mining company should undertake once a deposit has been identified, is to initiate a series of Environmental Baseline Studies (EBS). EBS include analyzing and quantifying the relevant environmental parameters for the area containing the footprint of the future mine as a record of the environmental conditions before any project activities have taken place. This data can be used to monitor differences (impacts) of various environmental and socio-economic parameters during the subsequent development, operational and closure phases of a mine.
There are real and perceived environmental impacts. EBS can identify and differentiate between the two by the data obtained in the studies. Well-developed EBS can alleviate heightened perceived concerns within the community during the initial phases of mine development, before the issue becomes a serious risk to the project. Not all impacts are negative: a positive example might be the training and employment of local workers at the mine that will lead to a higher standard of living for the worker’s families and the community at large.
EBS monitoring can be looked at as an early warning system of impacts that could potentially affect the environment during the operation of the mine and long after the mine is closed. The sooner the studies can be initiated, the larger the amount of data that can be analysed and assessed. The more detailed the studies are, the more accurate the assessment of the environmental parameters will be. This will lead to the best chance of identifying all the environmental impacts associated with the mine project and developing mitigation measures and procedures to address them , before seeking approval from the residing jurisdiction.
The EBS is used to develop an Environmental Impact Assessment/Statement (EIA/EIS). This document is an essential part of the approval and permitting process to develop a mine in most jurisdictions in the world. Benefits of a well-documented EBS include:
- Reassurance in the minds of the public and jurisdictional decision makers that key environmental issues have been identified and will be monitored and mitigated, during and after the project is approved.
- Lower probability that the jurisdiction will require additional EBS-type studies, which invariably require additional time and money and can delay the advancement of the project.
- The approval and permitting phase of the project tends to advance at a faster and more predictable rate.
- If additional finance is unexpectedly required during construction and/or operation of the mine, it may be preferable to approach financial institutions for that funding rather than utilize other forms of financing. Those financial institutions will most likely require that a due diligence audit be undertaken by an independent consulting firm, such as Micon International Limited, in which case having a well-documented EBS will be an asset for the mining company to rely on during an environmental due diligence audit.
- Many financial institutions are governed by Equator Principles and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standards. A well-documented EBS should comply with IFC’s Assessment and Management of Environmental and Social Risks and Impacts (PS 1), Resource Efficiency and Pollution Prevention (PS 3), Community Health, Safety and Security (PS 4), Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Management of Living Natural Resources (PS 6), Indigenous Peoples (PS 7) and Cultural Heritage (PS 8).
- Present and future shareholders of exploration and mining companies are increasingly looking at environmental and socio-economic risk as a key factor in their evaluation of a company. A well-documented EBS can demonstrate to a shareholder that the mining company is both well-run and a good steward of the local community and the environment.
- Larger mining companies that are looking at a potential joint venture, merger or acquisition increasingly expect a well-documented EBS in respect of the target asset.
A major mining company will usually have an environmental department that handles all its environmental approvals and permit issues for each project, but smaller exploration and junior mining companies developing a new mine seldom have that luxury. Environmental consulting firms that specialize in EBS can be contracted to undertake the work as the project advances, though exploration and junior mining companies can initiate some of the work themselves. Certain studies can be incorporated into the exploration phase of a project at relatively little expense. Some of the EBS data that can be collected by field crews in the initial stages of exploration include:
- Local geological data and topography.
- Surface water network mapping and preliminary water sampling.
- Soil sampling of different geological terrains.
- Stream sediment sampling of different geological terrains.
- Wildlife and vegetation identification.
- Climatic data from an inexpensive, automatic weather station at their camp.
- Socio-economic information including local infrastructure, community descriptions, important local leaders/groups, land uses, etc.
- Initial engagement of communities and aboriginal groups.
Geologists and their technicians can document environmental information at the same time as the geological data and capture all of this information in a Geographical Information Systems (GIS). This data can be used to assist in planning future baseline studies.
The exploration team will most likely interact with local communities and aboriginal groups while undertaking their geological duties. This is a perfect time to undertake preliminary meetings with these groups, and sufficient time and money should be allocated in the company’s exploration budget for these activities. The geologist should document these meetings so that, as the project advances, this data can be incorporated into a formal community relations program that can then be included in the EBS and subsequent EIA/EIS. Through this interaction, communities and aboriginal groups will be kept informed of the project as it advances and are thereby empowered. Perceived environmental and social issues from communities and aboriginal groups can be addressed early in the process and alleviate or avoid potential future conflicts.
All EBS data, analysis and related information, including correspondence, should be well documented. It is a misconception that EBS reports themselves should conform to the Canadian National Instrument (NI) 43-101 F1 format. In fact, only a summary of the findings and conclusions of the EBS should be reported as part of Section 20, when a company generates an NI 43-101 Technical Report.
As the project advances, EBS requirements become increasingly specialized, and at this stage environmental companies can assist or take over this role from the mining company, taking the initial data noted by the exploration crews and building on it. Generally, an EBS should include:
- Detailed surface water quality monitoring, flow characteristics, demand and assessment.
- Subsurface water quality, analysis, demand requirements and assessment.
- Atmospheric conditions and air quality analysis, which may include air quality computer modeling.
- Flora and fauna ecosystem analysis and assessments including resource identification, habitat characterization and species at risk identification.
- Cultural investigations and assessments, including archaeological, historical and religious sites.
- Socio-economic assessments including demographic analysis, community resources, cultural and religious resources, current community economics, potential economic development sources, etc.
- Community and aboriginal group assessments and engagement programs including any formal agreements (i.e. MoU, etc.) between aboriginal groups and the mining company.
- Noise analysis, modeling and assessment, if appropriate.
These individual assessments may take several years to complete and each should be documented in individual reports. These assessments are essential in identifying all environmental impacts of the proposed mine. Depending on the jurisdiction, the EBS documentation would then be examined for completeness by the jurisdiction’s environmental agencies.
The next step in the process is the EIA/EIS. A generalized EIA/EIS procedure will be examined in a subsequent Micon newsletter article.