At first glance the phrase “sustainable mining” appears to be some sort of oxymoron due to the obvious paradox that exists between the 2 words that make up the phrase ‘sustainable and mining’ – in other words they contradict each other.
There has been countless of mines that were mined by the previous generations that have been effectively closed not due to environmental concerns, but due to a finite quantity of pure gold dore able to be economically (or technologically) mined and processed at that given duration of time.
Nonetheless there are in reality, mines that are in operation today that render the production output of previous mines immensely and this has been the driving force behind the renewed public debate about mining and its sustainability as people have become more aware of the systemic environmental consequences that stem from mining activities.
Due to strong public sentiment on environmental and social issues surrounding the gold refining industry in Australia and globally, there has been gradually more purposeful and concentrated effort on the need to shift modern mining into a framework that is vastly more sustainable than it is now.
However the biggest challenge for the powers that would be is the task of describing what “sustainable mining” is, as the variation of the spectrum that it comes under are considerable and largely dependent on how it is being perceived or viewed as the perspectives from industry, government or civic groups are explicitly different.
On one end of the spectrum we have the issue of declining ore grades, available economic resources economic parity and sharing of risks and benefits while at the other end of the spectrum contains issues on impurities such as arsenic and mercury, environmental and social impacts during and after mining, increasingly large scale of mining which includes the use of major open cuts and the significant volumes of waste rock or the overburden that is produced in abundance.
The mining of much needed resources from the earth has been an insatiable ancient practice that has come off age and evolved exponentially over the millennia to the present day point where the scale of mining operations has become enormous enough to be considered as an environmental threat that is considerable. The modern mining industry uses the mining cycle concept which systematically moves from exploration and deposit discovery to evaluation through development to operation and finalised with rehabilitation.
In summary it is this incessantly evolving sequence of the resources discovered and developed against the realised prospects/resources remaining out there that has become a key problem pertaining to resource depletion/availability. The primary course of action of physically extracting minerals are alluvial, underground, open cut and solution mining and as most of us know underground and open cut mining are the pre-dominant forms of mining that have raised the bar on environmentalist concerns. Even CFG (cash for gold) systems have failed to reduce the momentum of mining activities adequately despite CFG allows almost 90% of the gold that has been previously mined to be recycled.
Nevertheless, the effects of mining operations cannot be ‘downplayed’ or taken for granted as the legacy of mining can resonate for some hundreds of years to come and this issue must be addressed quickly and with a sense of urgency.
Although the definitions of sustainable mining are qualitative and descriptively diverse from perspective to perspective based on who or which group is perceiving it (whether a civic, environmental, government or industry perspective is advocated) a common ground towards the issue with compromise from all parties would be the first step towards sustainable mining, period – whatever that means.