Buildings. Electronics. Green energy. Jewelry. In much of the world, daily life relies on mined materials. Materials conservation and recycling are on the rise, yet the increasing demand for new mined materials continues, and many communities live alongside – or downstream and downwind — of these mines.
British Columbia has a number of mines and a lot of exploration and operations in the Northwest. An important question for everyone is how do we ensure that the right mines go ahead in the right locations with community consent and minimal environmental impacts?
B.C.’s laws have often been criticized for being outdated. The process for staking claims is as old as the province itself and was established, in part, to colonize the West. The Tulsequah Chief mine has been leaching acid mine drainage into the Taku watershed for over 60 years, without a regulatory fix. On Aug. 4, 2014, the catastrophic tailings dam failure at the Mount Polley mine dumped 25 billion liters of mine waste into the once pristine Quesnel Lake, Polley Lake and Hazeltine Creek, and still no legal consequences have occurred, yet the Expert Panel report predicted two failures every decade if “business as usual” continues. Clearly, B.C.’s laws need to be updated to reduce public and environmental risks.
Beyond these conventional government instruments, there are additional mining standards tools that are being developed to help raise the bar. Among these is the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) that has worked with diverse stakeholders to develop a comprehensive definition of “best practices” in mining. IRMA is a way to measure best practices, and to create incentives for leadership. It’s a new global program seeking to emulate for mining what has been done with certification programs in fair trade agriculture, responsible forestry and sustainable fisheries.
The IRMA Standard recognizes existing laws but goes further, especially in places where the law may not be enough to protect social and environmental values. IRMA addresses quality of life measures for workers and their communities living closest to mines in real-life broad terms. “Yes” to fair working hours; “yes” to the right of workers to form a union; “yes” to the protection of indigenous rights; “yes” to community engagement; and also “yes” to protection of the air, water and cultural heritage for those affected by mining. Given the need for consent and in setting a high bar, it is also recognized that not all mines should or will go ahead.
The reputation and credibility of many mining companies has been harmed by poor practices that have harmed the environment and communities – even from other operations. Many have experienced permit delays and litigation as a result of this legacy and lack of community confidence. These challenges represent substantial financial cost and uncertainty for mining companies.
In addition, many leading brand companies that make the products we use everyday (automobile companies, electronics companies, jewellers, etc.) have been held to account for the harm done at mines. Most of these companies don’t even buy directly from mines – the supply chain of mined materials is long and often complicated. Regardless, these brands have experienced protests and reputational impacts from the harm done by mines. With corporate commitments to protect the environment, ensure worker safety, respect indigenous rights, and address climate change, they are looking to IRMA to provide a tool that can help them better leverage the substantial power they have in their purchasing dollars to help create positive change.
Finally, there is no question that metals will play a large and important part in the substantial investment needed for climate mitigation infrastructure. To make this work for the BC economy, standards like IRMA are an important tool to help ensure the move to clean energy isn’t impeded or tainted by bad mining practices. First Nations government and communities should expect and demand that any mine operating in their region meet the highest standards. It’s also a way for companies in the region to hold themselves to a high bar, take leadership and gain access to responsible market demands by applying accountable and transparent standards like IRMA.
Alan Young is director of the Materials Efficiency Research Group.