Meeting Summary (download PDF version)
On October 16, 2009, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE), in collaboration with the Mining Association of Canada (MAC), hosted a Round Table meeting of stakeholders/experts from the mining community to discuss issues pertaining to the existing and future use of Canada?s water resources by the mining sector.
The multi-stakeholder group represented a range of interests including industry, environmental non-government organizations, federal government departments, aboriginal groups, and the financial sector. The focus of the meeting was to identify the current and emerging freshwater use and availability issues within the sector, and characterize the state of water use information/data within the sector. The latter discussion also highlighted future information gaps believed necessary for sustainable water management. The final discussion of the meeting focused on recommendations to the NRTEE with respect to critical policy issues that the NRTEE might incorporate into its Water Program in 2010.
Water Use and Mining in Canada
MAC provided a thorough overview of water use by the sector, and identified current efforts underway by the sector with reference to improving its performance. The mining sector does not view water availability as a major constraint or risk to its future sustainability, although the sector acknowledges that as new mining operations are developed, this may impact water resources in the watersheds where they are established. Sector representatives are more concerned about excess water and extreme rainfall events than about the availability of and access to water for operational purposes. The sector recognizes the importance of managing potential downstream impacts to communities and ecosystems specifically as it relates to water quality impacts.
The MAC presentation noted a number key water uses by the sector:
Xstrata Copper and Xstrata Nickel provided presentations that highlighted their water management programs and practices. Xstrata Copper (Kidd Metallurgical Site representative) noted the importance of their Water Management Program, an objective of which is to reduce water consumption and increase water use efficiency through annual targets and a Continual Improvement Program. The program includes a risk evaluation of surrounding impacts due to water consumption, such as potential for erosion due to fluctuating water levels, potential to affect fish habitat during low flow periods, and potential to affect recreational activities and other regional operations. They also highlighted their innovative tailings disposal process which results in thickened tailings deposition, thus improving their water use efficiency and reducing the amount requiring treatment. Xstrata Nickel (Raglan Mine) representative discussed it?s ?Zero Process Water Discharge? process used for management of mill processed water. The process has resulted in a reduction of water consumption with no discharge of process water at the site (?closed loop? system). Other benefits of the process include: important reduction of toxicity; energy savings; reagents savings; less water to treat; and better metallurgical effect.
Water Issues in the Mining Sector
Water Management and the Site Water Balance
The ?site water balance? is an important issue for mining operations ? the need to account for all water in and out of the site. The challenges of a site water balance include extreme events (the result often being large volumes of water entering the mine site), and the fact that the mine site itself is located where the resource exists and so the companies must deal with the associated site hydrology. In light of potential increased uncertainty of extreme precipitation events (both in timing and severity) due to climate change, this concern may become more prevalent in future mining operations.
A mine?s consumptive water use might be low but a mine?s water management can have a significant effect on a region?s water quality if contaminated water is released to surrounding waters via its discharge or through groundwater seepage. In order to prevent impacts to the receiving environment, water contained in tailings impoundment areas is treated and then disposed of at regulatory compliance points. However, water treatment is costly so participants suggested that managing the water footprint of a site is necessary to both reduce costs of water management and to minimize impacts to water quality.
The mining sector is vigilant about potential impacts of operations to other users and ecosystems. Participants believe that the intersection between water quality and quantity is most important because quality may affect the ability of water to be used for other purposes. For better water management, industry needs to understand the other water uses in their mine?s region ? water is often a shared resource and so industry needs to know what (if) other water uses and potential restrictions might exist.
Groundwater as an issue for mines depends on location and proximity to other groundwater users. For example, the dewatering of a mine may result in local residents? water wells to go dry, and therefore needs to be addressed. While an important local issue, this was not noted in the meeting as a sector-wide issue.
Climate Change Adaptation
Jason Prno, of Trailhead Consulting, provided a summary of the World Wildlife Fund?s recent report ? Climate Change and Canadian Mining: Opportunities for Adaptation. While the research did not specifically focus on water use and availability issues, some insights into this topic were noted. Climate change implications include variability in amount of precipitation, variability in timing of precipitation and in an increase in occurrence of ?extreme? events-- all of which are regionally dependent. The report identified a number of case studies which highlighted the differences in potential impacts across the country ranging from production impacts to the potential for infrastructure failures. In summary, the study found that: (1) the majority of mining operations will be affected by climatic hazards, including vulnerabilities in the closure phase; (2) climate change is a minor concern in this sector and there is limited adaptation planning occurring.
In the discussion that followed, four reports and/or initiatives were highlighted as taking climate change into consideration. They are:, Environment Canada?s 2009 Environmental Code of Practice for Metal Mines, The Canadian Dam Association?s Dam Safety Guidelines, the MAC?s Guide to the Management of Tailings Facilities and Natural Resources Canada, which has a cross-sectoral group looking at mining and climate change. The idea of risks and opportunities as a result of climate change and adaptation was also raised. Open pit mining has traditionally been viewed as less risky compared to underground mining, but annual climate fluctuations can put stress on pit walls and might lead to potential failures. While not related directly to climate change per se, underground mining, with its smaller ecological footprint, might be viewed by investors as less risky in light of climate fluctuations.
Water Use Information and Data
Most mining companies have a good understanding of their site water balance, including intake, consumption, recycling/reuse and discharge. Water use data are collected using meters and calculated from pump data, and are thought to be quite accurate. Reporting requirements differ by province and territory, but are usually collected as a requirement in water use or other operational permitting applications.
Although the sector believes that it has a good handle on operational water use, it believes that data are lacking on water resources in the regional context and on cumulative effects. Further, participants suggested that data are not packaged consistently and in a timely manner and are therefore inaccessible to other interests and the public or for broader management purposes.
Direction for Further Inquiry by the NRTEE
Due to the fact that participation at the meeting did not include representation from all provinces and territories, participants suggested the NRTEE understand water use policies and regulations in all jurisdictions.
Although participants were very interested in issues related to water footprint management and the intersection between water quality and quantity, they believe that these issues are being adequately addressed by other organizations working in the mining sector and there is no need for the NRTEE to work in these areas. Issues pertaining to water management technology are also thought to be adequately covered by other organizations.
If the NRTEE were to study climate change impacts further, participants believed that it would be most useful to study issues related to managing extreme events or developing a common approach to adaptation - including definitions and standards ? with other industrial sectors, rather than focusing on issues related to water availability.