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Business

Asian mines beware -- ISO wants to clean you up

Thanks to the Beatles' song, "A Day in the Life," we know that at one time there were "4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire." But no song lyric exists to tell us how many holes there are in Asia as a result of mining.

     This is hardly surprising. Mining to extract minerals is one of the oldest of man's activities. It enabled the advances of the bronze and iron ages, as well as the industrial revolution, and today mining provides the metals needed for crucial components in our computers and smart phones. It is difficult to estimate the number of mines worldwide, but the International Labor Organisation estimates that 1.5 million people are employed in mining in developed countries, and 2.2 million in developing countries. According to the World Bank, mining is carried out in 100 countries and is a major part of the economy in 50 of these.

     The problem is that failure to apply environmental management to mining, and particularly failure to clean up mines when exploitation is finished, can result in serious consequences for health and environment such as contamination of soil and water, erosion, and sinkholes.

International standards

To tackle this problem, a new ISO team is at work to develop international standards for mine reclamation management. Its aims include helping to minimize the potential long-term damage from mining activities, enhancing the quality of life of people who live near mines, and providing a framework for better relationships between the mining industry and local residents.

     The first standard is targeted for publication in 2018. Nine countries are participating in the work: Australia, Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, Iran, South Korea and South Africa. The team is led by a South Korean, professor Sun Joon Kim, of the Department of Natural Resources and Geoenvironmental Engineering at Hanyang University in Seoul. His work prior to the ISO initiative focused on mining hazards such as soil and water contamination caused by abandoned mines, and technological remedies.

     "There is no reliable data on the number of mines currently in operation in Asia," Kim told the Nikkei Asian Review. Most Asian countries are unable to identify the number of disused mines that continue to damage the environment. However, Asia produces more coal and minerals than other regions and is estimated to have the largest number of mine reclamation projects. For example, South Korea, with some 590 operating mines and 4,800 inoperative or closed mines, implemented reclamation projects at 1,890 sites from 2007 to 2014.

     Kim explained, "The mining industry, which is a basic foundation for industrial development, inevitably leads to damage of the natural environment in the process of extracting resources. Mine reclamation management is a collective term for all activities to minimize environmental damage caused by the mining industry. It tackles such challenges as water quality, soil pollution, deforestation, land subsidence, dirt and noise.

     "Environmental problems caused by mine development not only threaten the livelihood of local residents, but also their health. On this account, a large number of mine development projects are experiencing serious difficulties, including project delay or suspension, due to the protests of local residents and environmental organizations. Mine reclamation management is an activity to satisfy both developers and local residents by managing efficiently the environmental issues of mining regions."

     In Asia, according to Kim, there has generally been a low degree of awareness of the environmental aspects of mining, and this has caused substantial environmental damage and harm to local residents, even long after mine closures. Small mines have often been operated without permits and without any systematic attempt at mine reclamation. In Mongolia in particular, public health and the environment are seriously threatened by so-called "artisanal mining." 

Governments moving

However, Kim pointed out that South Korea and Japan have both seen government-level interest in mine reclamation and both have begun to implement large-scale restoration projects.

     "Japan's Hosokura mine, which has a 1,200-year history, had produced about 23 million tons of various metals, mainly zinc and lead, by its closure in 1987," Kim said. "Japan conducted a forestation project around the mine after the closure and also converted its underground tunnels into a theme park for tourists, in addition to a museum. Moreover, the recycling of waste automobile batteries was launched using the area's advanced technology that was developed for mining. This business has made a significant contribution to the local economy in the wake of the loss of the mining revenues and employment.

     "In South Korea, the mountainous eastern region encompassing Jungsun, Taebaek and Youngwol was once the nation's most prominent coal production site. However, it endured a severe economic slowdown and environmental pollution after the closure of most mines due to the decreased financial viability of coal. As a result, the South Korean government embarked on a mine reclamation management project in the surrounding region.

     "In 1998, the government established High 1 Resort in order to revitalize the local economy. The resort had a wide range of recreational facilities including casino, hotel, condominium, golf course and ski resort. It was designated as a public institution and allowed public funding by central and local governments, which together held 51% of the shares. A share of the profits was reinvested in the local community, which also benefited through employment at High 1 Resort."

     Kim explained the thinking behind the ISO's decision to develop standards in this field: "While the developing countries in Asia have accelerated their economic development based on their abundant underground resources, they have also encountered suspensions, delays and cancellation of mine development projects. This is because the mining industry was perceived as one that would have an adverse effect on the environment -- and this in a context of increasing public awareness of environmental issues. It has therefore become essential to position the mining industry as a sustainable one by developing and complying with an international guideline standard for mine reclamation management."

     The future ISO standard will cover terminology and guidance for mine water investigation and mine closure planning. Later standards will provide requirements for implementation by specific sectors of the diverse mining industry. "The mining industry around the world has different regulatory contexts, and different environmental, geological and climatic conditions," Kim emphasized. "Thus, it is not possible to apply a universal set of requirements in a single standard. Our goal is first to provide a general guideline for mine reclamation management. This will deal with broad categories, such as "coal mine vs. metal mine" and "active mine vs. closed mine." Later standards will be developed to meet the unique nature of mines, depending on the type of mineral and excavation method. Examples are uranium and asbestos mines."

Awareness-raising

The experts on the ISO mine reclamation standards team are keen to end the current low degree of awareness in the mining industry as a whole of the need for environmental protection. Kim explained: "It has been widely perceived that mine reclamation management would increase the overall cost of mining. Today, it has become difficult to conduct resource development if mine reclamation management is not properly conducted. Rather than representing a cost, proper implementation of mine reclamation management will be more economical since it can reduce the possibility of project delay or interference due to excessive environmental regulation, or civil complaints by local residents."

     Kim summed up the value of the ISO's new work as follows: "It is necessary to develop mines in order to procure industrial raw materials and to revitalize local economies. At the same time, a degree of environmental damage is inevitable. However, this can be kept to the minimum by effective and systematic mine reclamation management. In addition, the ISO standard will help mine developers to reduce conflict-resolution costs and to improve their corporate image by conducting eco-friendly mining activities."

Roger Gareth Frost is a Welsh freelance journalist and consultant living in France. 

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