Mining is one of the activities that cause significant environmental degradation with long-term effects. As such, this commercial venture should be approached with sustainability in mind to ensure that immediate needs do not compromise the capacity of future generations to take care of their own. The sustainability framework acts as a guideline for businesses to assess and manage environmental risks linked with their operations. In mining, the advantages of venturing into a certain project should outweigh the associated disadvantages as part of feasibility aspects. This paper discusses environmental issues raised in BHP Billiton reports and explores the impact of the Ok Tedi copper mines, which are located in New Papua Guinea.
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BHP Billiton Reports
Two reports by BHP Billiton will be compared in this section of the paper. The first report was published in 2010 and it is titled “Our Strategy Delivers: Sustainability Report 2010”, while the second one is “BHP Sustainability Report 2017: Minera Escondida Pampa Norte”. The first report covers sustainability issues associated with assets wholly operated or owned by BHP between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010.
The second report is an account of the socio-economic and environmental performance of three of BHP’s operations in Chile between January 1, 2017, and December 31, 2017. However, the main interest will be in the environmental aspect of BHP’s sustainability strategy. This section identifies the major environmental issues mentioned in the two reports and establishes whether there has been a change in the emphasis on the main issues over this time.
The major environmental issues mentioned in the first report include climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, and water. In the second report, water, biodiversity, air, waste management, and climate change are the key environmental issues highlighted. Based on this information, it suffices to say that there has not been a change in the emphasis on the main environmental issues raised by BHP between 2010 and 2017.
For instance, concerning greenhouse gas emissions in the 2010 report, it was stated, the company’s GHG-producing assets would develop GHG respite cost curves to “help identify and implement the most cost-effective abatement options across our global operations and provide the basis for achieving current targets and setting future reduction targets” (BHP Billiton 2010, p. 16). In line with this commitment, the company implemented some of its strategies as indicated in the 2017 report on its operations in Chile.
According to the report, in 2016, BHP completed the construction of the Kelar gas-fired power plant, which had started to supply clean energy to its mines in Northern Chile and Minera Escondida in 2014. The plant has a maximum net power of 517 MW, making it the largest of its kind in northern Chile. In 2017 alone, this clean energy alternative cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least 750,000 tonnes. Additionally, due to its “flexibility and start-up speed, it has also facilitated a greater integration of renewable energies, principally wind and solar, into the grid.
In this sense, it serves as a bridge from which to advance towards the energy transformation Chile needs” (BHP Sustainability Report 2017, p. 17). The construction of the Kelar power plant shows that BHP is committed to implementing its sustainability strategy to ensure that it becomes carbon-neutral by 2050.
Similarly, in the 2010 report, BHP had indicated the importance of water conservation. In most cases, the company’s operations are located in arid and semi-arid environments with limited access to water. As such, the report indicated that the company was aware that water played a central role in mining and smelting among other operations, and thus it was looking for opportunities to recycle, reuse and conserve this important resource.
In a bid to achieve this goal, the company promised to develop water use reduction cost curves as a way of determining the best way to reduce usage across its operations by setting new targets among other viable strategies. In the 2017 report, it was indicated that the company was focusing on depending entirely on seawater by 2030. Consequently, the company is constructing two desalination plants in Escondida. By 2022, the company seeks to reduce the withdrawal of freshwater by 15 percent, which is within global public goals and targets.
Some of the main milestones towards water conservation that the company has achieved according to its long-term strategy were achieved in 2017. According to the report, in 2017, BHP stopped withdrawing water for “operational purposes from the Punta Negra Salt Flat” (BHP Sustainability Report 2017, p. 22) and commissioned an Environmental Impact Study to establish sustainable ways that could be employed to cut water usage to the minimum. As such, while the company has not changed its emphasis on the main environmental issues between 2010 and 2017, it has continued to implement its long-term sustainability strategies.
On biodiversity, in 2010, BHP acknowledged that human activities were disrupting ecosystems, and thus it made several commitments to protect threatened areas and species. In 2017, the company had reclaimed the Lagunillas wetland in Chile, and at the end of the year, BHP had recovered 83 percent of the area’s vegetation surpassing its 78 percent target by a significant margin (BHP Sustainability Report 2017). Additionally, BHP was also supporting the conservation of the Valdivian Coastal Reserve in southern Chile as part of its efforts to conserve biodiversity.
In conclusion, genuine improvement in environmental outcomes has occurred between 2010 and 2017. The company continues to implement its sustainability strategies to ensure that its operations do not compromise the future generations’ capacity to meet its needs. As shown in the preceding paragraphs, BHP has achieved some of the goals that it set in 2010 concerning greenhouse gas emissions, water conservation, and biodiversity.
The Ok Tedi Copper Mines in Papua New Guinea
Located on Mt. Fubilan along the Ok Tedi River in Papua New Guinea (PNG)’s Western Province, the Ok Tedi copper, and gold mine is the most important natural resource to the country. Between 1984 and 2013, mining activities in this location caused extensive environmental harm due to poor policies and practices governing waste disposal (Burton 2011). Initially, the OK Tedi mine would only be allowed to commence its operations if a tailings dam had been constructed to accommodate waste from the mining activities. However, in 1984, the tailings dam collapsed after a landslide hit the region forcing the mine operators to switch to riverine disposal (Hearn 1995).
As such, the mine tailings would be disposed directly into the Ok Tedi River and the Fly River along a stretch of over 1,000 kilometers. While a new tailings dam would have been built, the government was eager to start enjoying the mining profits, and thus environmental laws were changed to accommodate this unsustainable approach to ore extraction (Jorgensen 2006). This section discusses the impacts of copper mining at Ok Tedi mines by looking at both the advantages and disadvantages associated with these activities.
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One of the main advantages of copper mining at Ok Tedi mines is the associated monetary benefits that have supported PNG’s economy for many years. In 1996, the total reserve of the ore was over 400 million tonnes of copper, and in 2001, it accounted for 18 percent of the country’s national exports (Harorimana 2013). As such, the Ok Tedi mines contributed significantly to the overall PNG’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.
According to Timperley (1994), the PNG government received over Kina 20 × 106 in taxes and other benefits from the mining activities. The involved companies also spent a considerable amount of money on local industries to support their mining operations. As the country’s economy grows, its citizens benefit in numerous ways. For instance, the mines provided employment opportunities for thousands of people from all over the country. An estimated 4000 Papua New Guineans were employed, directly or indirectly, as workers, contractors, or for construction and transport (Timperley 1994).
Consequently, the living standards of the employed individuals and their dependents improved significantly. Landowners were paid annual compensations and royalties totaling Kina 2.2 × 106 thus injecting cash into the local economy (Timperley 1994). With better living standards, people experienced improved health statuses and education levels. Additionally, the mining companies provided education and training programs to the residents.
Following better living standards, life expectancy improved from 30 to 50 years in PNG (Timperley 1994). Local businesses also benefitted from the mining activities as new opportunities were created to support the mainstay operations. Besides, Townsend and Townsend (2016) argue that the region experienced an unprecedented wave of infrastructural development in terms of road networks, airstrip, power communication, and water management systems to facilitate the extraction and transportation of the minerals after mining.
Environmental pollution was the major disadvantage of this project. After the collapse of the tailings dam following a landslide, the mine operators convinced the government to allow operations to continue by dumping waste in Ok Tedi River and Fly River. This riverine dumping practice polluted a stretch of over 1,000 kilometers along these rivers. With over 120,000 tonnes of tailings and 80,000 tonnes of waste rock being dumped into the Ok Tedi/Fly River system daily, the damage was extensive (Campbell 2011). Downstream villages, livelihoods, agriculture, and fisheries suffered irreparably.
PNG people, who are reliant on fish supply from the affected rivers, were affected as the number of fish harvested declined significantly due to pollution (Essacu 2018; Smith & Hortle 1991). Besides, the available fish had a bad taste and thus fishermen could not sell their catch, hence declining business opportunities (Jorgensen 2014). The water supplied from the rivers also had a bad taste due to the contamination from the minerals mined upstream, and thus people started experiencing a scarcity of clean drinking water.
Additionally, after heavy rainfall mine tailings would be carried to the adjacent forests, gardens, swamps, and creeks, which left 30 square kilometers of dead forest. The massive dumping of waste rocks and tailings raised the riverbeds by over 10 meters, thus making the rivers shallow and affected indigenous transportation routes (Earth Institute 2016). Similarly, aquatic life was disrupted due to the deposition of sediments on the breeding grounds for different marine species. Additionally, the over-reliance on the money given to landholders and shareholders by the mine operators caused inequalities among locals (Filer & Le Muer 2017).
In my opinion, the benefits of the mine outweigh the associated disadvantages especially given that the mining could be done in a better way. The benefits associated with the Ok Tedi mines contributed significantly to the country’s economic growth and the improvement of the people’s living standards. The only problem was the decision to opt for riverine dumping of tailings and waste rock after the collapse of the initial tailings dam.
A better way of mining at Ok Tedi would have involved having stringent and elaborate environment protection policies to ensure sustainability. The collapsed tailings dam should have been reconstructed to ensure that dumping was done appropriately without polluting the Ok Tedi/Fly River system. Accurate tallying of toxic waste from the mining activities would have also enabled the mine operators to assess the extent of pollution and take the appropriate actions.
Mining activities should be carried out sustainably to avoid the depletion of natural resources and environmental pollution. BHP Billiton has continued to improve on its sustainability efforts to conserve the environment in the course of its operations in different places around the world, as indicated in its yearly reports. The effects of unsustainable mining are seen clearly in the Ok Tedi copper and gold mines in PNG, whereby extensive pollution has led to adverse effects as explained in this paper.
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