The issue, to me, is not whether we should allow open-pit mining. Rather, it is a question of whether we can strictly enforce laws, rules, and regulations that ensure mining operations successfully balance profitability and economic viability with social and environmental protection and sustainable development. If we cannot, then the open-pit ban should stay.
Environment officials are reportedly set to recommend to the Cabinet by next month the lifting of the open-pit ban, as endorsed recently by the multi-agency Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC). “Provided that mining laws are strictly enforced,” Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy A. Cimatu had told a press conference.
Without doubt, lifting the ban can give the mining industry a needed boost. For one, it can now allow development of big mining prospects that are limited to the open-pit system — also known as open-cast or open cut mining, which is a surface mining technique of extracting rock or minerals by their removal from an open pit or borrow pit. Quarrying is a type of open-pit mining.
However, we also need to review existing policies and regulations to determine if these are more than sufficient to mitigate if not eliminate the risks and pitfalls associated with open-pit extraction. Among others, we should look into the global Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance or IRMA.
IRMA is a private sector-led multi-stakeholder, consultative initiative that advocates responsible mining worldwide. It is currently working to establish “a multi-stakeholder and independently verifiable responsible mining assurance system that improves social and environmental performance.”
As I noted in a column last year, this coalition is “developing standards for environmental and social issues related to mining, including labor rights, human rights, indigenous peoples and cultural heritage, conflict response, pollution control and site closure.” The group aims to put in place “a system of independent, third-party verification to enable mine sites to credibly demonstrate that they are operating in a manner that is consistent with healthy communities and environments, and that leaves positive long-term legacies.”
Also worth pursuing is EITI or the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which is another global standard to promote the open and accountable management of natural resources. “The EITI Standard covers themes or key issues from the extraction of the resource from the ground to how it affects the citizens of the country. This includes how licenses and contracts are allocated and registered, who are the beneficial owners of those operations, what are the fiscal and legal arrangements, how much is produced, how much is paid, where are those revenues allocated, and what is the contribution to the economy, including employment,” the EITI website notes.
We should also look into success stories of open-pit mines that have been fully rehabilitated. There are many instances where mine reclamation or rehabilitation resulted in conditions that are even better than prior to mining, and this should be our standard when it comes to fixing up and restoring exhausted mining sites.
I recently chanced upon Cornerstone, a journal of the coal industry, and read the story of the Colowyo Mine in Colorado in the US. The mine, according to the story, started in 1908 as an underground operation, but in 1976 converted to a multi-seam dragline and truck-shovel surface mine. It now yields about 2.5 million tons of coal annually to feed a baseload power plant. Colowyo follows the strategy that reclamation should begin “as soon as mining in a particular area is finished.” This is to minimize the “environmental impact and footprint of the mine at any one time.”
The story reads: “Colowyo’s reclamation objective is to restore the mined area to a land use capability equal to or better than the land condition that existed prior to mining. This commitment begins with the Tri-State Board of Directors, which has made reclamation projects a priority and has dedicated the necessary resources to ensure completion at or above industry standards.
“The desired end results of all reclamation practices are to stabilize the soil, maintain hydrologic and vegetation resources, and restore the approximate original contour of the mined area. Ultimately, the goal is to return the mined areas to a condition that can support its original use as rangeland and the watersheds to their approximate pre-mining character. In general, the long-term appearance and usefulness of the mined area will be similar to that which would have been encountered prior to any mining,” it adds.
And Colowyo has not been doing things alone. Over the years, it has reportedly worked with schools like Colorado State University and the University of Idaho as well as government agencies like the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife, and the US Bureau of Land Management to “develop innovative reclamation techniques.”
To date, with successful mine rehabilitation, over 2,400 acres of reclaimed land at Colowyo is said to provide “year-round habitat to local birds and both small- and big-game wildlife populations, including small mammals, birds of various species, elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope. Mine officials also claim that vegetation is now self-sustaining and flourish under all natural weather conditions without the aid of any artificial intervention.”
The question now is whether we are in a position to replicate Colowyo’s success in mine rehabilitation. Do we have policies and regulations in place, as well as the political will, to ensure that lifting the ban on open-pit mining will not be detrimental to the environment or displace people? Can we ensure safety, protection, and sustainable development?
Marvin A. Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.