Rethinking environmental and mine closure planning

Complied by Chege Moses Kasaija

Ukwazi, one of Africa’s leading mining services specialists, recently launched its new Sustainable Mining Practice (USMP) division, aimed at providing innovative, sustainable solutions for environmental and closure liability management, including post-closure plans.

In this exclusive interview, Dr Christine Vivier, head of Ukwazi’s USMP division says, Mine closure processes may either be a ‘successful closure’ or a ‘legacy, take a read…

APMOR: What would you like the African mining sector to know about Ukwazi’s Sustainable Mining Practice/division’s capabilities?

Dr Christine: As an established black-owned mining services provider with a 16-year track record, we recognise that compliance exists within a complex regulatory environment, and that environmental and social sustainability lies at the heart of the future of mining.

Our industry insight, specialist teams and expertise, ideally position us to find the most innovative, sustainable solutions to environmental and closure liability management based on sound value engineering practices.

Ukwazi Sustainable Mining Practice takes a fully integrated approach to environmental risk management. Our aim is to fundamentally transform the closure design philosophy by shifting the focus to comprehensive, life-cycle liability management, lowering costs, reducing risk and strengthening balance sheets.

APMOR: What advise would you give to any mining related company, industry, government, or businesses that haven’t yet embraced sustainable mining practices.

Dr Christine: The growth of mining firms will be largely dependent on how they adapt to the pressures of sustainability, which is an ongoing process and not a temporary undertaking.  Managing the tension between the three pillars of the triple bottom line (financial prosperity, environmental stewardship and social responsibility) is integral to sustainable mining.  Positive impacts of integrating sustainability principles into mine planning and production includes enhanced public support, increased profitability, reduced and better controlled risk, minimized environmental impact, increased brand value and reputation, and overall improved global standing to operate and grow. Ultimately, the requirements associated with the social license to operate will mean mining companies have to show leadership in corporate governance and active global citizenship.

APMOR: How are Ukwazi’s services/solutions contributing towards environmental technology development and mining resource management?

Dr Christine: Our solution is built on the premise of integrated planning, digital mining and systems integration. A more complete overall view of the value of a project can be achieved by integrating sustainability principles, landform engineering and closure cost modelling into mine planning.  Several mining companies are locked into (regulatory) conditions that are costly, impracticable and may not deliver the optimal sustainable result. Integrated planning enables best-value scenarios.  We see ourselves as mining solutions architects with a specialist capability in mine planning, environmental management, mine closure planning, and execution.

APMOR: What role can or is Ukwazi playing to ensure that its sustainable mining practice model gains operational parity in the African mining sector.

Dr Christine: Closure processes may either be a ‘successful closure’ or a ‘legacy”.  African countries have vast experience in the negative legacy that resulted from incorrect mine closures, affecting the environmental and socio-economic environment within the area of operation.  Many African countries may have proper legislation and guidelines to address closure but the ability to enforce remediation activities, and technical and social issues associated with mining may vary significantly between different countries and between provinces or states within individual countries.  We partner and advise our clients every step of the way, across every touchpoint of the mining value chain; leveraging industry insight and expertise to drive commercial success and project development.  Our model will gain operational parity in the African mining sector when mine owners realise that sustainability is no longer a burden but an imperative.  Sustainability is increasingly connected to productivity, which is in turn linked to economics and profitability, but profitability in this context has a wider definition than purely a return on investment for shareholders. Host communities also need to benefit via local economic development.

APMOR: What advise would you give to mining companies operating in any African country that has never used Ukwazi’s expertise or services in their mine closure and mine rehabilitation operations before.

Dr Christine: Mine closure should not be viewed as a problem but rather as a natural conclusion to mining and as a catalyst for creative solutions for post-mined landscapes.  Although actual mine closure occurred at end of the mining cycle, the process to manage the closure effectively, need to start early in the life of the mine.   Mine closure planning should be an intrinsic element of the entire project life cycle from conceptualisation, implementation, closure, and post closure.   It also means concurrent rehabilitative mining.

APMOR: What are some of the challenges you foresee on the ground as you move forward with your sustainable mining practice model/strategy in Africa while helping African mines meet the 21st century challenges of the mining industry.

Dr Christine: Mining companies need to manage a complex array of social and environmental issues as well as stakeholder expectations while simultaneously focusing on competitiveness, productivity and innovation.  However, for countries in Africa, mining has the potential to contribute significantly to economic growth.  Mining also have the potential to contribute to the use of renewable energy, the green economy, battery metals and hydrogen fuel technology. Companies that are better positioned to manage the social and environmental risks and challenges in business will be better positioned to deliver sustainable growth and returns.  Culture matters in sustainable development. Culture is the necessary overall foundation and structure for achieving the aims of sustainable development: it needs to be backed into the organisational DNA of mining companies. A new paradigm in sustainable development thinking is that when culture and sustainability become mutually intertwined; the distinctions between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability begin to fade.  There is a natural resistance to change in any form and change management will form an intrinsic component in our sustainable mining strategy. There is a transformational dividend for mining companies that adopt this approach.

APMOR: What should be the role of government or environmental regulators or policy makers in ensuring that some of these sustainable mining solutions brought by Ukwazi are compulsory in every mining company’s directive since most of them ensure great benefits to the environment, economy, community, clean air, soil etc

Dr Christine: While we cannot prescribe how national governments should operate, the success of the sustainable development initiatives will require unprecedented cooperation and collaboration between mining companies, government and civil society to realise the benefits of mining beyond the life of mine.

APMOR: How different are your sustainable mining services compared to other companies that do the same, do you offer training.

Dr Christine: Our differentiator is contained in our closure philosophy and sustainable practice methodology, which we share with our mining clients.  We believe the key is including closure planning and future land use into mine planning and operations as and when projects are conceptualized and then to implement concurrent rehabilitative mining practices in parallel to mainstream mining operations. Training may be provided on a project by project basis. For example, we are assisting a client to design and implement an aquaculture farming project as an alternative end-land use, with a view to incorporate the local community as part of the management and operation of the project.

APMOR: What is the future outlook of sustainable mining practices in the mining sectors of Africa

Dr Christine: We believe sustainability can be a catalyst to change as it addresses all facets of the mining value chain.  Sustainable mining becomes an essential element—for the industry’s long-term survival. Sustainability also drives long-term economic benefits for new mines and those that are already operational.   There is a significant risk to the business if sustainability does not become embedded in the culture and in day-to-day operations.  Companies need not only regulatory permission but also “social permission” to conduct their business.  Investors have increasingly realized that managing environmental, social and political risks protects long-term shareholder value and mitigates reputational and commercial risks.  Sustainability increasingly informs investment decisions.

APMOR: Would you say that Ukwazi is revolutionizing mine closure and mine rehabilitation model in South Africa and the rest of Africa.

Dr Christine: It is probably more evolution than revolution, but improved closure outcomes can be achieved by linking people, processes and technology in a systematic way that captures mine closure planning, and by making it an intrinsic part of management operating systems. Given the advances in software, we can now look at the whole operation within one model to determine the true costs of operations, resulting in a practical and compliant closure solution.

APMOR: Any further information you would like to share with the readers about Ukwazi’s sustainable mining practice.

Dr Christine: Apart from the sustainable mining practice, the company has also added a project design and delivery capability. This means we have engineering capability which we have added to our product service offering for project in South Africa as well as all over the continent.