Sean Browne, Executive Director at Acrux Resources, examines the responsibility of the mining sector to prioritise the preservation of water systems.
To date, the greatest single obstacle to addressing water-related challenges within the scope of the mining sector’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) response has been the almost exclusive focus on carbon emissions using up much of the sector’s ESG bandwidth, drowning out conversations around water.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that water is a critical resource for all life, and the missteps in the mining sector where issues around extraction, beneficiation and disposal impact geographic areas of both scarce and abundant water resources. Polluting entire water systems can and in most cases does have dire long-term consequences unless adequate solutions to mitigate these disasters are adopted immediately.
NOT JUST CARBON EMISSION REDUCTION CONVERSATIONS
Much the same as with carbon emissions, we are running out of time to simply talk about water risk management. The conversation around water is already lagging behind topics of carbon emission reduction, and having acknowledged the issues, we can now move toward finding meaningful, viable and cost-effective solutions.
At Acrux Resources, we are conscious of our ESG responsibilities and those of our entire industry. That is why we are already thinking – and talking – about water. We believe that technology holds the key, but also that there is no magic wand we can wave to solve the water issue. Instead, we maintain that the answer will be found in taking incremental steps – a drop by drop approach to improved water stewardship. These solutions will need to focus on resource efficiency, smarter usage and water preservation.
By achieving, or at least coming closer to, these three goals, mining companies can do a great deal of good. Not only will they boost their own ESG scorecards, thereby attracting investment, but they can also help to reposition the entire mining sector towards a more sustainable trajectory.
WATER STEWARDS TAKING CHARGE
Negative perceptions around mining must be weighed against the fact that the sector plays a vital role in the transition to a low-carbon economy through the metals and minerals that it produces. Becoming water stewards is therefore essential and will involve increased awareness of the downstream impacts of water extraction, use and effluent disposal. Improved efficiencies in the circular use of water could well play a role in repurposing and reusing water. In addition, avoiding further contamination by protecting existing sources, reducing mine tailings and tailings dam seepage and the risk of tailings dam failure while investing in technology or innovations that do not use water are some of the possible solutions to adopt.
At Acrux Resources, we believe that it is our collective responsibility as the mining industry to set a replicable model of global good practice standards in water stewardship. The scale of mining’s water problem does have at least one advantage: it gives the sector the opportunity to be proactive and to take the lead on the movement to protect our most precious resource. In taking the lead, we can authentically reposition mining as a water-positive industry, thereby helping to avoid environmental liabilities, reputational damage and the diminution of social license to operate. In essence, mines must be not merely water users but water stewards.
TECHNOLOGY REDUCES WATER DEPENDENCE
As the first port of call, we need to reduce the sector’s dependence on water. This will necessitate focusing on the thirstiest mining processes, specifically ore processing, which accounts for some 90 percent of the waste-stream mass. Urgent measures are also needed to mitigate the most significant threats to water, for example, by reducing tailings and the risk of tailings dam seepage and failures.
Again, this is where we believe that innovative technology can make a material difference. By employing dry sorting techniques, the industry has the ability to extract greater value from tailings. Attributing greater value to tailings will incentivise finding disposal methods other than on-site accumulation, which comes with multiple water-management risks.
FULLY FUNDED SOLUTIONS
Mining has made an outsized contribution to the problem; but now, as an industry, we must step up and lead the development of solutions. Our portfolio company, Acrux Sorting Technology (AST) has developed and successfully deployed dry sorting technology solutions that use multiple sensors to accurately process and retrieve economic mineral from both low grade discard dumps and run-of-mine ore flows.
Mineral sorting and processing usually account for much of the water usage in mining operations, but dry sorting technologies such as those offered by AST are one of the single most impactful ways to address high water consumption, by reducing water in this process entirely.
A major obstacle to improved ESG impacts has been limited access to funds and resources. AST enables resource owners to sidestep this hurdle by offering a fully-funded dry ore sorting solution. The AST model has proven to reduce water usage without the need for capital investment.
Not only do AST’s solutions deliver cost-free water usage reduction, but they help resource owners extract maximum value from their mineral resources, thus creating a more environmentally and economically sound operation.
This is the holy grail of mining: improved ESG impact plus an increase in saleable product. Historically, these two outcomes have been mutually exclusive. The positive ESG impacts of AST’s solutions extend beyond more responsible water management to a reduction in carbon emissions (which will always be part of the ESG conversation) and a reduction in tailings generation. This last outcome can in turn mitigate water-related risks.
THROWING DOWN THE GAUNTLET
At Acrux Resources, we are throwing down the gauntlet of water risk management to the entire mining industry, in South Africa and beyond. We have given examples of technological fixes that can reduce water consumption and prevent contaminated water entering the environment. These solutions not only enhance ESG impact, but actually improve the profitability of mining operations.
Never before have we had a more urgent need to manage water more effectively, nor a more compelling economic case for doing so. Will you join us in talking about water – and taking action?