Top Three Environmental Challenges Compromising Sustainable Mining Operations
Known around the globe for its rich natural resources and extensive mining activities, Canada is celebrated as a leader in sustainable mining. With sustainable mining operations playing a crucial role in ensuring the long-term viability of Canada’s nearly $60 billion mining industry and protecting the country’s stunning natural environment for generations to come, mine owners and operators must balance economic development with environmental stewardship.
However, mining is one of the most weather-vulnerable industries in the world, with industry experts warning that global commodity supplies will remain vulnerable to weather-related disruptions. Severe weather events can significantly impact mining operations, posing various risks that disrupt productivity, compromise worker safety and lead to expensive delays.
As severe weather and environmental events increase in both frequency and impact, industry players must discover new ways to navigate evolving environmental challenges, climate change, and sustainability needs. Unfortunately, many tactics that might have worked in the past are less effective, especially concerning some of the most demanding environmental challenges impacting the mining industry.
Consequently, advanced weather and environmental monitoring solutions that deliver accurate and reliable insights are imperative to improving situational awareness, enabling mine operators to know when and how to effectively mitigate risks of hazards, preventing accidents and ensuring smooth operations.
Sustainable Mining Environmental Challenge 1: Flooding, landslides, and runoff water
Flooding, landslides, and runoff water create safety and environmental risks, particularly in regions with steep terrain or poor drainage systems. These hazards can result in operational downtime, contamination of local water sources and difficulty adhering to government regulations.
Heavy rain can lead to washed-out roads, tailing dam failures, landslides and even mine shutdowns in case of flooding. Sudden and excessive rainfall creates hazardous conditions – like fast-moving currents, water pooling in excavated areas or rapidly inundated underground tunnels – increasing the risk of accidents and injuries. Slope monitoring is critical as instability due to heavy rainfall, or other geological or environmental factors, can trigger landslides, putting mine workers at risk of being buried or trapped under debris.
An often-overlooked challenge is precipitation, which can cause fog and even icing and freezing of roads, especially in northern mining operations.
Flooding and runoff water can carry sediments, chemicals, and pollutants from mining activities to contaminate local water sources, affect biodiversity, and potentially pose a risk to human health.
Weather-related safety and environmental risks disrupt mining operations, leading to significant downtime and financial losses for mining companies. Since the risks flooding, landslides, and runoff water pose to mining operations are multifaceted, owners and operators must implement effective risk management strategies and preventive measures to mitigate this riskiness and ensure sustainable mining practices.
Sustainable Mining Environmental Challenge 2: Lightning, thunderstorms, and wildfires
Lightning, thunderstorms, and wildfires present significant risks to mining operations around the globe.
Mining operations, particularly those in open pits or surface mining areas, are susceptible to lightning strikes during thunderstorms. Lightning can damage heavy equipment and threaten worker safety. It can also ignite flammable materials or cause explosions, leading to fires toxic to nearby communities, structural damage, equipment destruction and related safety risks. Lightning strikes can also cause power outages or damage electrical equipment, leading to temporary production disruptions and increased costs for critical system repairs and replacements.
Thunderstorms bring myriad safety risks, from high winds and heavy rain to the potential for flash flooding. In many cases of lightning or severe thunderstorm activity, mining operations temporarily stop, or workers may need to evacuate to ensure their safety.
Wildfires can also significantly impact the mining industry, disrupting operations, transportation, and supply chains. In regions prone to wildfires, mining operations face the risk of fires spreading to their sites, which can release hazardous air pollutants and negatively impact air quality and nearby communities. In the event of approaching wildfires or severe weather conditions, mining operators may need to evacuate workers or suspend operations until the severe weather passes or until repairs are made – delaying production schedules and incurring additional costs for accommodation and transportation.
Mining operators must implement comprehensive safety protocols – lightning detection and weather monitoring solutions, emergency response plans and training, etc. – to mitigate any lightning-, thunderstorm- and wildfire-related risks.
Sustainable Mining Environmental Challenge 3: Air pollution and dust
Air pollution and dust in sustainable mining operations pose various risks to surrounding natural environments, mine operation workers, and the country’s overall sustainability goals.
Local changes in wind speed and direction disrupt blasting operations, spreading dust or gases from mining operations (e.g., carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide) into surrounding areas and increasing environmental liability. Dust particles and fine particulate matter deposition on vegetation can hinder plant growth, negatively impacting biodiversity and the overall health of plant and animal species across a region. Dust from mining operations can also settle on nearby water bodies and soil, leading to contamination that affects aquatic life and water and soil quality.
Failure to meet air quality regulations or industrial hygiene standards at both extraction and processing and logistics sites can lead to legal consequences, fines, and reputational damage for mining operations. Addressing the risks of air pollution and dust in sustainable mining operations requires implementing effective measures and prioritizing air quality monitoring.
Innovative weather and environmental monitoring and forecasting solutions
Enter hyperlocal weather and environmental insights.
While standard weather forecasts offer some insight into upcoming conditions, they often lack precise detail for remote mine locations, contributing to suddenly changing conditions that force work stoppages. But with modern weather insights and forecasting tools, mining organizations can enhance their resilience to severe weather, helping prevent accidents and ensuring sustainable mining operations – even in the most challenging conditions.
Forward-thinking mining companies often implement local weather and environmental monitoring capabilities to provide early warnings and ensure the safety of workers and the continuity of operations, saving time, money, and even lives. These companies must focus on three areas of weather awareness: observations, nowcasting and forecasting.
Consider an integrated monitoring station that combines all relevant mining operation parameters, such as wind, solar radiation, temperature, humidity and pressure, precipitation, current weather, and visibility, mine emissions, water level, and weather forecasts and nowcasts to deliver accurate, actionable insights – at the moment, in the next few hours, or over the next couple of days. Advanced weather measurements can be utilized in calculating the evapotranspiration of the tailing dams and other essential operational duties to maximize safety and minimize downtime.
Automated lightning alerts, grounding systems and environmental monitoring solutions can also help protect personnel, improve operational resilience, and manage risks related to thunderstorms, lightning, and other severe weather. With the ability to monitor nearby storms and lightning in real time, modern software solutions empower mining operators to create information, warning and alarm alerts, custom trigger distances, custom alert areas, and more to better protect people and operational continuity in the safety-critical mining sector.
Accurate measurement data, forecasts and actionable insights mean enhanced efficiency, healthier workers, and better compliance with environmental regulations. By incorporating real-time severe weather and environmental monitoring and automated lightning alerts into mining operations, decision-makers can help enhance safety, improve operational resilience, and effectively manage associated risks now and in the near future.
Mining is central to economies worldwide, supplying essential materials to produce everything from microchips to luxury items. But digging into the earth may also impact a community’s air, water, and land. Leveraging modern weather and environmental observation and forecasting technologies to prioritize Canada’s pristine natural landscapes, diverse ecosystems and abundant water resources empowers mining industry decision-makers to ensure the industry’s longevity, protect ecosystems, comply with regulations, build positive relationships with surrounding communities, help mitigate climate change, and drive innovation for a sustainable future.
About the Author
Frank DeFina is a Business Development Manager at Vaisala and has proudly served the company for 15 years. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in business management and holds a certificate in weather forecasting from Pennsylvania State University. Frank also served as a weather forecaster in the United States Air Force.
Vaisala is a global leader in weather, environmental, and industrial measurements. Building on over 85 years of experience, Vaisala provides observations for a better world, with space-proof technology even exploring Mars and beyond. We are a reliable partner for customers around the world, offering a comprehensive range of innovative observation and measurement products and services. Headquartered in Finland, Vaisala employs over 2,000 professionals worldwide and is listed on the Nasdaq Helsinki stock exchange.