Out of the shadows

It has been an eventful year in mining thus far, with mergers and acquisitions, controversy at events, calls for industry reinvention and one of the worst mining disasters in recent history
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The breach of the tailings dam at Vale's Córrego do Feijão mine occurred on January 25

Some of this is par for the course - protesters camping outside of mining conferences and big merger deals are nothing new - but the magnitude of the Brazilian dam collapse and the shadow it has cast have forced some industry players to re-evaluate their practices.

"Following the dam failures, we saw solidarity, more open communication and adoption of practices in common," Stantec's mining vice president Andrew Watson tells our senior reporter Donna Schmidt in our May issue's consultants feature.

"If we can do the same in other parts of our business, without waiting for some catastrophic catalyst, we'll be in good shape."

It has also brought many other issues to the fore that mining simply can't afford to ignore.

Fluor mining and metals president Tony Morgan echoes a similar sentiment in our EPCM piece: "Today there is a greater focus on tailings, as a result of the recent Brazilian dam failures, and the use of water and energy consumption - all so the overall environmental impact … is minimised."

Whether it is a sense of increased collaboration, a second look at environmental impact or a stronger focus on best practice, it does seem like some lessons have been learned. How far this cautiousness and newly invigorated sustainability kick will reach, however, remains to be seen.

In many ways mining's reputation has already been tarnished - not just by recent events. As the companies sit at the top of the value chain, far removed from the end consumer, it's no wonder people are also ignorant of the sector's (or more accurately its products') importance in their everyday lives.

Mining-reliant communities are often an exception, as miners have to target them with CSR and PR initiatives to gain a social licence to operate in the region. For example, BHP recently brought in Australian research group CSIRO's engagement platform Local Voices to give communities close to some of its operations a better chance of being heard.

Yet, locals getting to terms with a miner moving in next door are in a very different situation to the mining-unaware masses, who usually only hear about the industry when something goes horribly wrong. Naturally miners' wrongdoings and neglect should be highlighted by the press; although no amount of fearmongering will make the sector disappear.

With miners' fresh focus on safety, sustainability and cooperation, perhaps the industry will change to something more palatable to the general public.

At events like the recent Future of Mining Australia, the picture many companies are trying to paint is of a more diverse industry eagerly playing in the AI, automation and electrification sandboxes. As highlighted by the keynote speaker, Resolute Mining managing director John Welborn: "We can't keep doing the things we've always done."

The industry needs to find new ways of solving problems - and new ways of communicating its successes.