Mining has made a huge contribution to the Australian economy both in terms of tax revenue and jobs, bringing well-paid roles to communities that might otherwise have been left behind. But as environmental issues move up the political agenda, mine regulations and dust emissions in particular have come under the spotlight.
In the mining sector, air pollution is perhaps the single biggest threat to stakeholder relations. This has not gone unnoticed by mine operators, who report that dust suppression is their number one safety and environmental priority. Despite this, existing dust suppression strategies are clearly failing to get emissions back to safe levels set out by the government’s Air Guideline Value (AGV).
This under-performance has two important consequences. The first is that the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) has heightened scrutiny of mining operations by taking more control of monitoring and identification of PM10 and PM2.5 emissions. Monitoring coverage has widened, and accuracy has improved. The second consequence relates to an intangible asset that is nevertheless key to every mine operator’s bottom line: goodwill.
The impact of dust emissions on the health and amenity of surrounding communities is an emotive and controversial topic that some operators prefer to avoid. But the reputational damage and risk associated with neglecting these issues carry a significant price that puts downward pressure on shareholder value. The problem of particulate matter (PM), better known as airborne dust, surely deserves everyone’s full attention.
Dust is classified according to how fine or coarse the dust particle is, as measured by its diameter. A grain of coarse dust with a diameter that is greater than 10 micrometres is classified as >PM10. This is about one seventh of the width of a human hair and is the most common dust produced by mining.
PM2.5 is associated with combustion. At mine sites, it is mainly generated by vehicles and mobile equipment exhausts. It accounts for about 5% of particles emitted during the mining process. In terms of human health, particulates equal to or smaller than PM2.5 are the main cause of concern because they can penetrate into air sacs deep in the lungs. People with respiratory illnesses such as asthma, and those who suffer from heart disease and diabetes, are thought to be especially susceptible. Elevated PM2.5 levels have been linked by numerous scientific studies to increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits.
PM10 makes up around 40% of mining dust and comes from the mechanical disturbance of rock and soil. This includes dragging, shovels, bulldozing, blasting, and vehicles raising dust on dirt roads. This is the kind of dust that settles on homes and gardens, sticks to windowpanes and clothing, and clogs rainwater tanks. PM10 is also associated with negative health impacts, but it is primarily a visible nuisance to stakeholders that requires them to undertake extra cleaning and maintenance of their clothes and properties on a regular basis. The severity of PM10 depends on meteorological conditions such as wind direction. Most of the finer dust generated by mining is between PM2.5 and PM10.
Getting the blame
According to the Australian National Pollutant Inventory (NPI), coal mining accounts for 41.2% of national particulate matter PM10 air emissions from NPI sites. That leaves 60% generated by other sources. Important sources of PM10 carried by the wind include bushfires, bare ground, stockpiles unrelated to mining, and a variety of non-industrial activities.
Monitoring is not able to identify the exact sources of PM10. Nor can it measure with precision how much air pollution derives from a designated high dust source. In the absence of targeted scientific data, therefore, who ‘gets the blame’ in the broadest sense depends on public perception. Where stakeholder trust is low, that blame tends to gravitate towards the mine operator. This may not be fair, but it shouldn’t be surprising either.
Price to pay
Low levels of stakeholder trust can have a direct impact on the operational efficiency of a mine. Where there is mistrust, the default position of stakeholders is likely to be opposition and nimbyism. This can slow down plans for mine expansion, for example, or impede the optimal use of assets.
Human health is the biggest concern among stakeholders regarding dust emissions. When dust emissions regularly breach government guidelines, the risk is that stakeholders with health issues are emboldened to pursue damages through the courts. Typically, local, and national media will amplify community opposition and health scares. The ever-present debate about the impact of mining activity therefore gets inflamed in a way that can create lasting reputational damage that is often difficult to allay.
Where the destruction of cultural assets is involved, such as the demolition of the Jugaan Gorge caves in Pilbara, the damage to community trust is literally incalculable. In the 21st century, hot button stories like this go right around the world and are capable of undoing decades of painstaking PR work in a few minutes. As a direct result of this case, the chairman of a mining company, its CEO and two senior executives ended up having to resign.
It does not stop there. Angry voters put pressure on politicians, who need to be seen to act, which feeds through into more stringent regulations and closer monitoring of dust emissions.
Historically mine companies have assumed responsibility for monitoring their own emissions, but this is changing. Where government does not control monitoring, it has introduced regular verification procedures known as dust control validation reporting. This is designed to ensure that monitoring equipment is performing reliably and accurately, with data recovery required to be above 90%. A growing number of mine companies who apply to expand operations need to demonstrate that emissions and discharges will not increase as a result of their proposal, and that risk will not increase either.
Embracing transparency and change
Operators who do the bare minimum on dust emission suppression are not helping themselves. Clinging to an old-fashioned reactive mindset only serves to exacerbate the challenges they face. Stakeholders need to feel that their concerns and objections are being taken seriously, which requires prompt verifiable action. They also need to see that appropriate preventative measures are being taken wherever possible.
Clearly, the old ‘fail and fix’ approach is no longer fit for purpose. This requires a whole new philosophy that aligns the mine company’s objectives with the interests of all stakeholders, including local communities. This is not achieved by simply throwing money at the problem. Getting dust emissions back under AGV requires nothing less than a transformative improvement in dust suppression that delivers results in a reliable and cost-effective way.
One possible solution lies in a technology-driven approach that embraces the principles of preventative maintenance and is capable of scaling out across whole organisations with minimum disruption. In the case of Australian Fire Industries (AFI) www.ausfire.com.au technology has been engineered to allow for a simple retrofit solution. Special suppression deluge nozzles encapsulate dust at its source while special adaptors reduce the risk of blockages, which improves reliability and reduces the need for expensive service and maintenance. The technology also works in full compliance with licence conditions.
By investing in transformative technology, mine operators will demonstrate to stakeholders and the DWER that they are taking dust suppression seriously. Stakeholders will see that the operator is investing in a planned and thoughtful way to address the problems that matter to them. As ever, actions speak louder than words.
In terms of operational efficiency, the risks associated with litigation and licence renewal will be under better management. Insurance premiums will reflect this. By adopting a more pro-active, technology-first approach to dust suppression, mine operators can improve their governance, their productivity, and their relationships. There will be more trust to build on.
When a mine operator embraces greater transparency and owns their risk, they have the means to become the industry’s principal technical authority. Being best in class has a multitude of benefits that all large mine operators ought to aspire towards. Enhancing shareholder value is one of them.