Against the backdrop of sustainability expectations and the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 and economic decline, the mining sector is faced with balancing revenue and resilience pressures, with environmental compliance and closure requirements. Is it possible to address these challenges, while also combatting climate change?

By Spencer Eckstein*

1. Compliance complexity

There is no doubt that compliance exists within a complex and often changing regulatory environment, and while every intention is there to adhere to enhanced requirements, the landscape can be difficult to navigate. Closure, itself, is regulated under the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA), the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) and the Financial Provision Regulations, amongst other legislation. Prior to receiving a mining licence, financial provision must be made for rehabilitative costs and ultimately, in order to close a mining operation, environmental authorisations must be effectively obtained before an official certificate can be issued. This, compounded by the proposed Climate Change Bill, which outlines the country’s commitments to curbing climate change. As such, best practice and innovative, sustainable solutions to environmental and closure liability management must be found.  

2. Categorising and connecting

Unfortunately, other mining disciplines are often prioritised over closure planning, resulting in a lack of integration between business strategies and environmental considerations, and increased emphasis on cost factors and other technical elements. Mine closure is not just a once-off exercise, it must be inherent to the life-of-mine process and technology, people and processes must be connected. Advancements in planning software and industry tools have meant that planners can determine practical and compliant closure solutions by simply analysing operations as a whole, driving accurate data-driven decision-making. The next step? Turning mine closure into mine transformation and moving away from compliance to strategy and valorisation.  

3. Stakeholder confidence

The reality is that some operators tend to tick legislative boxes when it comes to mine closure, however, execution often misses the mark. The trust deficit between communities and mining companies has long been a contentious issue, and one that has been identified as a top risk for key sector players. It is, therefore, a non-negotiable that local communities are consulted during all phases of mine closure planning, as it will have a direct impact on their livelihoods, cultural identity, housing and resources. Not excluding environmental effects such as soil erosion, land instability, air pollution and damage to local biodiversity. To address the potential damage of inadequate mine closures, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) has put forward a new mine closure strategy for consultation and commentary.

Stipulations, amongst others, encourage operators to turn closed mines into economically viable projects such as agricultural and energy generation initiatives or lucrative tourist destinations. Further to this, all mine closure plans should, ideally, focus on rehabilitating land in a way that empowers communities, supports livelihoods and improves access to land. Moving forward, mining companies need to establish strategies that incorporate sound closure plans; selecting a sustainability partner that can execute on both planning and compliance, underpinned by value engineering, clear objectives, measurable outcomes and solutionist thinking.

*Spencer Eckstein is the director for business development at Ukwazi

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