Adrián Juárez
CEO
CTA Consultoría y Tecnología Ambiental
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Is There Such a Thing as Irresponsible Mining?

By Adrián Juárez | Wed, 04/27/2022 - 09:00

Is there such a thing as irresponsible mining? Yes, there is! The industry is operated by people and just as there are responsible people, there are also others who are not. The behavior in the mining industry is like what we see on the streets when someone throws their garbage out of the window of a moving car on public roads, or when a person does not pay their debts or does not meet her or his commitments. Not feeling responsible for environmental protection and respect for people and letting others clean up someone else’s dirt is a recurring theme that also occurs in the operation of industries, especially when there is little transparency.

At the beginning of the year during a presidential morning press briefing, a journalist[1] questioned the president of Mexico about the existence of 585 tailings dams in the federal republic, to which the president expressed his concern and discomfort, in the sense that they represent a danger of contamination. The president said that the policy had already changed and that now no new mining concession had been granted, since during previous administrations, the mining concessions were granted without requiring that companies care for the environment. The president asked how we could ensure that there would be no spills from the dams and said that it was SEMARNAT’s job to do something together with the concessionaires; they mentioned the case of San Luis Potosi and the San Javier mine in Cerro San Pedro, a symbol of San Luis Potosi, that no longer exists, they destroyed it completely. Environmentalists sold their silence he said.

The president is correct: the mining industry generates waste, which is stored in dams and also changes the landscape. The mining industry behaves like any other industry and society: it generates waste, stores it, and with its activities it changes the landscape. The Mexican people changed the landscape when 700 years ago they settled in the middle of Lake Texcoco and what became the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City. Very little now remains of that great lake.

People who want to behave with environmental and social responsibility strive to manage their waste as best as possible, choosing products that do not have as much packaging, whose packaging is recyclable, and then separating the waste so that its final disposal is easier. The same happens with industries. They all generate waste and depending on the people in charge, they try to deal with it well.

Of those 585 tailings dams registered by SEMARNAT[2], many were built following the best criteria available at the time and were carefully closed so as not to leave a toxic legacy that would represent a danger to society. These tailings dams are also witnesses to many years of generating wealth, jobs and prosperity for Mexican society, witnesses to the tenacity and effort of the Mexican people to prosper. Mining is synonymous with prosperity. Humanity needs metals to prosper. Now, we see the world demanding clean energy, energy from renewable sources, such as the sun, wind, and water energy. For these developments, metals, such as copper for the transmission of energy; iron and nickel for the construction of equipment; lithium, nickel and cobalt for batteries, etc, are transcendental. Technological modernity (smartphones, internet cables, etc.) also demands metals, without which we would not have these things.

How then can we influence the mining industry so that it is responsible and not irresponsible as it is widely accused of being? The federal government can take some concrete actions, formulating policies and generating minimum regulations. But instead of doing the right thing, the Mexican president says that he will not permit any more concessions, even when he understands that man cannot survive without mining and without agriculture.

The producers of the metals and the industries that consume them (BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Tiffany, Ford, Corning, etc.) are already taking some concrete actions. On the side of the producers who want to be seen as "responsible," we have heard that they seek to implement measures that are recognized and audited by third parties, to improve their environmental and social performance and be better perceived. The most recent example appeared in Mexico Business News under the headline, “Grupo Mexico Enters the Copper Mark.”[3] There are also some gold producers, such as Newmont and its Peñasquito mine, Torex Gold Resources' Morelos mine, Agnico Eagle's Pinos Altos, Mascota and La India mines, Equinox Gold's Los Filos Mine and Alamos Gold's Mulatos mine, that are committed to complying with the Responsible Gold Mining Principles (RGMP) promoted by the World Gold Council[4].

On the consumer side, the most outstanding example is Carrizal Mining, which operates the Zimapan mine in the state of Hidalgo. It has committed to complying with the IRMA standard (Responsible Mining Assurance Initiative)[5] and in 2021 obtained the "Transparency" rating, which together with Anglo American's Unki mine located in Zimbabwe are the first rated under this standard. Carrizal Mining is a small mining company and participating in this process shows its high level of commitment.

Regarding the 585 tailings dams that are the main concern of journalists and the president of Mexico, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) has generated a specific standard, "GISTM - Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management," for responsible management of tailings[6]. This standard could be applied to tailings dams in operation and to future dams in Mexico so that this issue ceases to be a concern. The Church of England’s pensions board, representing 113 investors who together manage around US$21 trillion in assets, is actively promoting the application of this standard in the mining industry, lobbying mining associations in various countries to implement the GISTM before 2025, so that the capital of their constituents remains in the mining companies. Will SEMARNAT press for GISTM to be implemented in Mexico?

 

[1] Contra Linea, Sep. 2021: En México existen 585 presas de jales: Semarnat https://contralinea.com.mx/en-mexico-existen-585-presas-de-jales-semarnat/

[2] Gobierno de Mexico; Sept. 2021: Integra Gobierno de México Inventario Homologado Preliminar de Presas de Jales.  https://www.gob.mx/semarnat/prensa/integra-gobierno-de-mexico-inventario-homologado-preliminar-de-presas-de-jales

[3] Mexico Business News; Abril 2022: Grupo Mexico enters the Copper Mark.

[4] World Gold Council: https://www.gold.org

[5]IRMA, 2021: https://responsiblemining.net/what-we-do/certification/mines-under-assessment/

[6] https://globaltailingsreview.org/global-industry-standard/

Photo by:   Adrián Juárez