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Small (mining) is beautiful


March 15, 2010
by ErinRose Handy

“Sustainable mining” may sound like an oxymoron, but considering that all humanity depends on resources that must be either grown or mined, the concept is not self-contradictory; rather, it’s imperative.

Professor Marcello Veiga of UBC’s Norman B Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering is promoting a new sustainable philosophy in mining based upon findings from a six-year United Nations (UN) study.

Working for three decades as a metallurgical engineer and environmental geochemist for mining and consulting companies in more than 25 countries, Veiga reached a pivotal point in his life and career when he visited Serra Pelada, a mine 270 miles south of the Amazon River in Brazil, in the 1980s. There, he saw the activity of artisanal miners, individuals who mine or pan for gold using their own resources.

“I used to have the typical industry mentality that artisanal miners were criminals, stealing the gold and polluting the environment,” says Veiga. “But when I saw thousands of dirt-covered labourers climbing up rickety ladders with rock-filled sacks on their backs, some carrying bodies, I realized these were desperate people—80,000 poor and desperate people.”

The images drove Veiga to join academia where he felt he could best make a difference in our world. A professor at UBC since 1997, his work focuses extensively on environmental and social issues related to mining and mining communities.

Taking it to the UN

Veiga took leave from UBC in 2002 to work as chief technical advisor of the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)’s Global Mercury Project in Vienna, Austria, which was created to find ways of promoting best practices and preventing pollution caused by artisanal gold miners who use mercury in the mining process.

Mercury amalgamates with gold in the ore, and after the two have combined, the mercury is often burned off in an open burner, releasing the vapour into the environment. According to UNIDO estimates, 1,000 tonnes of the highly toxic substance are released into the environment each year by artisanal miners.

In this role with UNIDO, Veiga implemented environmental and health assessments of mercury pollution in Asia, Africa and South America. He also introduced procedures to reduce mercury emissions and develop local fabrication of equipment to reduce exposure of miners to mercury vapours and to increase gold recovery.

“This work was very enlightening, and we developed a keen understanding of the sustainability issues related to the environment and human beings,” says Veiga. “But I realized, to make true change, to truly help the people and the earth, there needs to be a profit incentive. And the profit incentive needs to come from a fundamental shift in the mining industry from investing in speculative opportunities to investing in more sustainable production.”

Social and environmental benefits

Veiga points to the Bre-X scandal as an example of why and how the industry must change. In 1995 Canadian company Bre-X announced that significant amounts of gold had been discovered in Busang, Indonesia. The announcement catapulted the previous penny-stock to a peak of CAD $286.50 per share. Bre-X Minerals collapsed in 1997 after the gold samples were found to be a fraud.

Today, Veiga promotes a sustainable approach to mining based upon the production of mineral rather than speculation of a mother lode. He proposes that small companies be connected with artisanal miners so that, in exchange for a sure mineral deposit, the companies can teach artisanal miners best practices, infuse wealth into the rural communities and ensure fair trade.

As only one in 5,000 mineral deposits found worldwide becomes a mine owned by a large mining company, there are many opportunities to responsibly mine small deposits. This has more social benefits for locals and less of an environmental footprint.

Marcello Veiga can be reached at (604) 822-4332 or veiga@interchange.ubc.ca.

ErinRose Handy is communications manager for the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of British Columbia. She writes regularly on topics related to engineering research and education.