Is Responsible Mining Feasible?

Is Responsible Mining Feasible?

Tellurium is the metal that turns sunlight into electricity, as a key component of solar panels – and the company Deer Horn Capital is trying to mine it sustainably.
Tellurium is produced in small amounts as a by-product of heavy metal mining, but the Coast Mountains of British Columbia, south of Smithers, is believed to be a much richer source. Deer Horn Capital is hoping to mine tellurium here, digging up 10,000 tons of rock in 2021 as a bulk test, a step toward creating a tellurium, gold, and silver mine.
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The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA)
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The mining industry has lagged behind the broader movement toward sustainability, but Deer Horn is leading the way. The company is one of the first mining-related firms in Canada to join the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), the first exploration company to work with sustainable and responsible mining standard and remains the only one that has made those efforts public.
As Tony Fogarassy, Deer Horn’s chairman, explains, the company wants to “do it right from the start.” He explains that there are “too many crappy mines out there. For things to change, we need a different approach.”
The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance is one of the newest of over a dozen mining standards. What makes it different is that most of those standards are narrow in focus or lack independence: some focus on single issues, while others have been developed by the mining industry.
When the State of Sustainability Initiatives, a project that examines many different kinds of industry standards, looked at 15 mining standards in 2018, it ranked the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance at the top.
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The Path to IRMA Certification
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The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance standard was born as a result of a number of high-profile mine accidents in the 1990s. One of these was a tailings pond failing at the Omai Gold Mine in Guyana, responsible for polluting 80 kilometers of river. Another was the Doñana Disaster in Spain, which cost $360 million.
IRMA assesses individual mines, not the companies that own them. The process begins with a mine conducting a self-assessment in terms of 400 benchmarks, including health and safety for workers, human rights, community engagement, pollution control, and land reclamation.
After that, the mine pays for an independent auditor to review the mine publicly. The auditor scores the mine against the 400 benchmarks and scores the mine up to 100 points. Scores below 50 don’t receive certification. The mines must also ace 40 critical areas, including not using child labor.
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Certification Isn’t a Silver Bullet for Industry Pitfalls
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The tellurium from the projected Deer Horn mine is expected to go to solar panel | Learn more on Commonshare | manufacturers hoping to lock in a sustainable source, one that will yield tellurium without unacceptable environmental costs.
Going forward, more and more metals buyers are likely to follow the same path to IRMA certification or something similar. The fact that IRMA is a third-party certification | Learn more on Commonshare | is likely to foster confidence.
Mining watchdogs and environmental groups remain critical: while they welcome IRMA’s detail and scope, they say that more needs to be done.
Jamie Knee, communications coordinator for MiningWatch, says that the problem with IRMA “is it’s voluntary and the only consequence for failing is failing the standard.”
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The Future of Better Mining Practices
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An exploration standard through IRMA is probably years away, and the first certified operating mine has yet to be announced – but IRMA may well be showing the way forward.
Two audits have been conducted at the Carrizal mine in Mexico and at Anglo American’s Unki mine in Zimbabwe over the last year. Both are complete, and the companies have 12 months to make improvements and be reassessed before the results are made public.
Sixteen other mines all over the world, including Canada, are in the self-assessment phase. Deer Horn and other exploration companies are using the IRMA standard to guide their operations, so that if they do become operating mines they will be ready.

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