Environmentally Mine – Part 1

Published : 16 Feb, 2018

What’s All This Environmental Business All About?

Over the next few issues I will be covering the basics of environmental management.

All mining operations have some impact on the environment. In fact all activities by human beings have an impact on the environment and our mining operations are just one of many.

Mining Operations require us to manage a lot of things such as –

production; costs; safety; profit as well as our environmental impact.

This is how we should consider the environment – one more thing that we must manage well so that we can keep operating. Those companies that manage the environment well also make the most profit! This is simply because they manage all aspects of mine operations well – not just the environment.

What Is The Environment That We Are Trying To Protect?

The environment is everything around us including other people – our neighbours; the local community and the whole population of the planet. Traditionally we think of the environment as cute, furry animals and pristine natural vegetation. These native plants and animals are important but they are not the only environmental issue we need to consider as mine operators. To help understand what is covered we need to look at some KEY CONCEPTS.

Ecology

This is the study of ecosystems. These are systems that involve living things. The main thing to remember is that all living thing are connected. What we do in one place will impact living things somewhere else. These linkages are so complicated that we have little chance of accurately predicting what result will occur from the environmental impacts we create.

An example where ecology is a crucial consideration in the pre-stripping and storage of top soil so that the topsoil can be re-used when the site is rehabilitated.  Many of you would be aware that top soil can only be stockpiled to a maximum depth of 2 metres( even this may be too deep). The reason for this is to preserve the full range of soil micro-organisms and plant seeds that were originally on the site prior to pre-strip.

Weed control is another key consideration. Disturbed  soil is an open invitation for the invasion of weeds. If not identified and controlled early the cost of later treatment can be excessive.

Both of these examples require sound management practices early in the project which will ultimately save on the cost of final rehabilitation. It’s a bit like putting money in the bank to gather interest. You cash in during the rehab process.

Biodiversity

Biodiversity describes the variety of all living things and covers the complete range of species and ecosystems. Three components are considered here: genetic diversity, species diversity and ecosystem diversity.

Since Australia was colonised in 1788, some 125 plant and animal species or subspecies are known to have become extinct. More mammal species have died out in Australia in the last 200 years than in any other continent. This loss is mainly due to predation by foxes and feral cats.

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution states the fittest individuals are selected to continue breeding. Without genetic diversity it is unlikely any plant or animal species would escape destruction when environmental changes occur.

The vast majority of species that have ever lived are now extinct. The survival of the fittest process called evolution allows new species to arise in response to environmental pressure.

The United Nations Development Programme considers the main causes of biodiversity loss are:

  • habitat destruction;
  • invasive species;
  • pollution;
  • over-harvesting;
  • climate change;
  • market and economic policy failures;
  • social, political and institutional weaknesses; and
  • lack of knowledge of biodiversity’s importance.

Genetic diversity

Genetic diversity describes both the sum of all the genetic information within the genes of the species living on earth and the variation of genetic information between each member of a species. Each species contains a unique arrangement of DNA. Once a species is extinct, that genetic information is lost forever.

A lack of genetic diversity can be disastrous as, for example, during the Potato Famine in Ireland, which caused the death of over three quarters of a million people and reduced the population by a quarter as many people fled the country. In the 1800s, the Irish relied on one variety of potato, the Lumper, for sustenance. Around 1845, the potato crop was attacked and destroyed, by a mould . The reliance on one genetic strain of potato proved  to be disastrous. Mould resistant varieties of potato were later introduced from South America (the home of the potato) but not in time to prevent the Famine.

Species diversity

Species diversity is simply the variety of all species living on earth or in a specific area.

A species is defined as a group of plants or animals that are similar and able to breed and produce viable offspring under natural conditions.

According to the UNEP’s Report, Global Outlook 4, the rate of species extinction today is thought to be at least 100 times greater than the natural rate of species extinction, that is, before human beings existed.

Mining Leases can be a threat to local native species if feral animals such as wild dogs, foxes and cats are not controlled. Alternatively a mining lease can be a native species refuge if traditional land use, such as grazing, is restricted and native vegetation can flourish.

The cheetah is at risk from a lack of genetic diversity within its genus

Ecosystem diversity

An ecosystem is an array of living organisms and the physical and chemical environment with which they interact. Ecosystem diversity is measured according to the composition, structure and function of the various ecosystems. Different conditions favour different communities of species and the different interactions within and between them. Examples of ecosystems are coral reefs, rainforests and deserts. An ecosystem can also be a small part of a larger ecosystem, such as a pond in a valley.

Mining operations always have the need to discharge water from the site at some time. How this is managed can have a big impact on the local waterways. These are often fragile systems subject to wild climatic variation. Well controlled water releases can be very beneficial if the water quality is better than the receiving waterway.

Benefits of biodiversity

The benefits of biodiversity are both tangible and intangible and are generally difficult to quantify. The role of biodiversity in the supply of ecosystem services can be categorised as provisioning (e.g. agriculture and fisheries); regulating (e.g. pollination); supporting (e.g. microorganisms cycling nutrients in soil); and cultural (e.g. spiritual or aesthetic benefits).

  • Economic and social benefits – Biodiversity’s most quantifiable value is in the provision of food, shelter, medicine and other resources we harvest for our benefit
  • Cultural benefits – The variety of species provides a sense of place and is intertwined with Australian culture. For example, part of our identity is defined by our unique animals such as the kangaroo and the emu, which are included on our coat of arms. Our diversity is also valued for enriching our lives, which would suffer if the variety of species was reduced.
  • Ecological benefits – All the species within the biosphere are in a complex, self-sustaining balance, which ensures that crops are pollinated, waste disposed of, nutrients generated and climate influenced.

Simply put, biodiversity maintains our life-support system. 

Ecology and biodiversity are the basic principles on which good environmental management is based. Next we will look at practical measures required to minimise the environmental impact of our mining operations. Next edition we cover these measures.