We borrow the land, mine it, and return it.

The extraction of minerals involves earthworks. Inevitably, there are impacts on the environment, on land or in the oceans. The miner must understand the likely extent of these impacts, and how they can they be managed, as part of planning the mine, and obtaining regulatory approvals. Environmental management is core business for mining companies.

Many aspects must be considered. Native species and ecosystems. Quality of air and freshwater. Noise, dust, and ground vibration. Visual effects, and modification of landscape. Historic heritage. Land-use before mining begins, and after the mine closes. 

From the moment mining begins, the rehabilitation work starts. As mining proceeds in one direction, in search of mineral-bearing ore, completed areas of mining are typically filled in and/or re-contoured using waste rock, covered in topsoil, and sown in vegetation.
Eventually the mine closes, but the job doesn’t stop there. A farm that is mined will be returned once again into farmland - and is often more productive as a result, with enhanced soil fertility. Conservation land or native forest will be returned, with active plantings, translocation of native wildlife, pest management, and with time doing the rest.

New land-uses or facilities may be created by mining. An open pit or tailings dam may be formed into a pond, lake or wetland, for conservation or community use. Roads may be retained as part of the transport network. The Macraes gold mine in East Otago built a trout hatchery; Newmont Waihi Gold restored a river that had been damaged by historic gold mining.

In the majority of cases, the community and Maori get a say in the environmental planning and management of a mine. Local buy-in is important to the mining company gaining a social licence to operate in a region. 

 

Social licence to operate

Communities and Maori expect to be informed and consulted on a mining company’s plans in a region. From the company’s perspective, the more local understanding and buy-in to the project, the better it is for all concerned.

Engagement is an important part of democracy, provided for in the Resource Management Act 1991. It starts long before mining approvals are obtained, or mining starts. Concerns centre on environmental impacts and how they are managed, on access to land, and on matters of importance to Maori.

Land-owner permission must be sought for exploration and mining. For private land owners, that is usually subject to a lease or buy-back arrangement for occupation of land. Agreement is reached in almost all cases because the value of the land for mining is very high compared to any other land-use.

In the case of conservation land, an access arrangement is required under the Crown Minerals Act 1991. The criteria for approval are set down in law, and include: conservation management, and, for significant proposals, the economic benefits of the project.

With the best will in the world, a mining company may not always gain widespread local approval. Mining is controversial, and not everyone is supportive, regardless of the merits of the project. In such cases, people may have a say in the RMA process via submissions, appearances at a hearing or in a court, or via mediation. Decision-makers must weigh the different strands of evidence in their decision-making, in achieving the “sustainable management” purpose of the Act. That is a democratic process, and is appropriate.

In granting resource consents to the mining company applicant, decision-makers will normally specify a list of conditions aimed at ensuring the project provides for economic, environmental, social and cultural wellbeing. For their part, mining companies may seek to achieve a net positive impact on the environment as a result of their activities.

 

A net positive impact on the environment

Regardless of efforts to manage the environmental effects of mining, the site will never be returned to exactly what it was, not immediately. It is accepted in the RMA that some residual negative impacts may remain, particularly if they are small compared to the benefits of the project. The cumulative effects of development in a region can occasion local concern.

Many mining companies go beyond the strict requirements of the law, to seek on balance a zero or even a net positive impact on the environment. To do that requires positive work to be done at a place other than the mine site. Terms such as environmental compensation, and biodiversity offsets are used in this connection.

To achieve a “net positive impact”, it is desirable to measure the effects and the offset or compensatory actions. This is often not easy to do, and has been the subject of much study, and policy development. That work is ongoing. For now, Straterra is developing case studies of environmentally-responsible mining.