Photos courtesy of the Mining Association of Canada

In 1908, the silver mining town of Cobalt, Ontario, took the Coniagas Mine to court. The problem? Tailings from the mine regularly flooded nearby homes and businesses and the company refused to fix it. A few years later, Coniagas demanded that the owner of a butcher shop pay to divert a waste rock pile away from the shop. The butcher moved instead, and the former shop was buried.

Such stories were once common in mining camps across Canada, as companies frequently operated with little regard for communities or the environment. Fortunately, the mining industry has changed immeasurably, including how tailings are managed, and how communities are engaged.

By engaging constructively and proactively building relationships and exchanging information, community engagement can help to build trust and reduce the potential for conflicts. It can also help ensure that communities have an understanding of the risks associated with tailings, and how the company is managing them.

Community engagement is a two-way street, and local communities have knowledge that can be valuable to mining companies, including by helping to inform better decisions throughout the life of tailings facilities in areas such as: setting performance objectives; assessing and managing risk; planning and designing tailings facilities; and closure and emergency planning.

The Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management, released in 2020, has a strong focus on community engagement. Internationally, this is new to many companies that have not previously engaged with communities on tailings management, or engaged only as part of project approvals.

Related: The Mining Association of Canada expands its Tailings Management Protocol, part of its Towards Sustainable Mining program

However, both tailings management and community engagement have been cornerstones of the Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) program since it was first launched by the Mining Association of Canada (MAC) in 2004. TSM is an international standard for responsible mining that provides performance measurement protocols that address a range of environmental and social topics, and focuses on effective tailings management and community engagement in addition to numerous other topics such as biodiversity conservation, climate change and water stewardship.

Since the introduction of TSM, there have been requirements to engage communities regarding tailings management, and initially, these requirements were in the TSM Tailings Management Protocol, with more comprehensive requirements for community engagement in a separate protocol. TSM has continued to evolve and improve to reflect best practice and for tailings this evolution has been informed by an independent review that was conducted after the 2014 tailings failure at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia. This review concluded that the existing protocol did not “adequately prioritize tailings-related topics that are of high importance to communities of interest.”

TSM now takes a more integrated approach, with the Indigenous and Community Relationships Protocol updated in 2019 and designed to address the need for community engagement on all aspects at the site-level, including tailings management. This allows flexibility, recognizing that each situation is unique, with different communities having different priorities. It also recognizes that engaging communities on one specific topic, such as tailings management, in absence of a broader whole-of-mine approach may potentially be problematic and counterproductive.

This commitment to sustainable practices and community engagement via TSM is illustrated well through the work of companies like Hudbay Minerals, which recently invested over $60 million into upgrading its tailings facilities in Manitoba. These enhancements came about in large part due to recognition of needed improvements identified through the company’s use of the TSM Tailings Management Protocol.

Community engagement was integral to Hudbay’s planning process, with the company holding meetings regarding tailings construction plans and the relationship of those plans to protecting the community from inundation in the event of a failure, with the goal of ensuring local concerns were heard and addressed. This collaborative process, with input received informing Hudbay’s plans, enhanced understanding of the company’s tailings management responsibilities, increased community engagement and resulted in substantial tailings upgrades. A win-win.

Around the world, mining companies, investors and regulators are rightly putting a strong emphasis on the need for safe, responsible management of tailings, and ensuring community engagement is at the forefront of this process is essential.  With 11 national mining chambers around the world, including heavyweights like Australia and Brazil, now participating in TSM and with over 200 mining companies currently in the process of implementation, the program is undoubtedly enhancing confidence in the way companies mine.

David Clarry is vice-president, Corporate Social Responsibility at Hudbay Minerals Inc., as well as chair of the board of directors of Mining Association of Canada. Charles Dumaresq is vice-president, Science and Environmental Management at Mining Association of Canada.