It's a simple substance made up of nothing more than a heap of molecules, each of which consists of an oxygen atom attached to 2 hydrogen atoms, connected to its identical neighbouring molecules via the -+ attraction of hydrogen bonding. Yet it's one of the reasons why the Earth is the only planet within our solar system capable of sustaining life.
H2O AKA water is pivotal to our existence and to the environment. It's also pivotal to mining's existence. It's used in the processing systems, for dust control, and for human use. However, all too often in the past those needs have clashed with detrimental effects on the environment, on local communities, and on mining's reputation within the global community.
Our Attitude To Water Could Do With A Makeover!
Humans have been cavalier about water for far too long. We waste copious amounts of it – do you leave the tap running whilst you brush your teeth for example? We pollute even more copious quantities of it. There are parts of the world for example where raw sewerage and untreated industrial waste water still gets dumped straight into natural water systems like rivers, and oceans. You'd think dead aquatic food sources, water-borne diseases, and lack of clean drinking water would have taught us a thing or three about what happens when we pollute our water supplies by now. Unfortunately, it seems not everyone has yet cottoned on to the fact that we need to treat our most precious resource a bit more 'preciously'.
Fortunately for the environment the mining industry is not one of the 'ignorant'. Indeed, if there's one industry that knows only too well what it means to respect water, it's mining. It hasn't always been this way though – there are many water-associated disasters in mining's past that attest to this. However, the mining industry is very good at learning from past mistakes. At least in some respects….!
Effective Water Management Solutions
What past history has taught the mining industry is that mining's impact on water and the environment can't be underestimated because there is huge potential for huge disaster when mine water is mismanaged. For instance, it's no longer acceptable to allow untreated water to flow unchecked from mining operations into water catchment systems. This includes not only wastewater but also seepage, run off and increasingly, water from underground operations. Therefore, effective water management is now a critical component in a mine's operations. It's important to the environment, it's important to other stakeholders who need to use the same water sources, and it's important for mining operations particularly when you consider that in some parts of the world just finding enough to operate a mine effectively is a major hurdle. In other parts, dealing with excessive amounts of the stuff also presents some major problems.
As a result, there's probably no other industry quite as capable as mining of taking a leadership role when it comes to water management, or as experienced and as creative in coming up with innovative ways to manage water. When water resources are scarce, mining companies have learned not to rely on existing supplies but to stand on their own two feet and find alternative water supply solutions. This has led to the commissioning of major projects like desalination plants capable of supplying not just the mine but also surrounding communities with water. At the end of the mine's life, these facilities are usually handed over to the local water authorities.
Some mining companies have also built plants that treat sewerage and industrial wastewater from local communities and they use that water in their mining operations. Excess supply is usually returned to the community water system if quality is good enough. The flow on effects for the environment from these types of endeavours is massive. In most cases, the reason the company was able to build the recycling facility in the first place was because there weren't enough of them already installed to deal with the amount of effluent being produced. Invariably, when effluent output exceeds the capacity of available infrastructure to deal with it, local river systems suffer…. That in turn means anything else downstream that relies on that river system also suffers – aquatic ecosystems, downstream communities and agricultural areas.
Other water management solutions include the installation of water treatment plants for recycling the mine's own wastewater. That way, once the operation has enough water it no longer requires massive injections of new water. Sometimes just the installation of rain and groundwater catchment and storage systems is sufficient to help keep this supply topped up.
Taking recycling waste mine water a step further is returning it to the local water infrastructure (either the river system or the local water supply). In these cases, companies have commissioned water treatment plants big enough to treat not just their own wastewater but also those of surrounding mines. Some of the water is then reused in the mines, reducing their need to draw on local water supplies, and the surplus goes back into the community water supply.
Other companies have been able to significantly reduce their water usage by looking at where it's being wasted and modifying the equipment accordingly. Sometimes it's as simple as putting impermeable covers over irrigated leach pads and installing less wasteful water delivery systems.
Wherever or however they're doing it, there's little doubt that responsible mining companies and the mining industry in general are increasingly stepping up to the plate and leading the way when it comes to water management. From providing integrative solutions that will ultimately benefit both local communities and mining operations through to becoming totally water self-sufficient.