What should society expect from mining companies?
The unfortunate journey of Finland’s Talvivaara nickelmine has accelerated a discussion about the social responsibility of the mining industry. The Talvivaara mine which is situated in Kainuu, north-eastern part of Finland, did not even get its production fully started before the problems commenced.
First the bad smell of sulphide and observations from the local residents about the changes in the colour of the water. Then mysterious death of some birds in the water reservoir and later, a tragic death of a worker because of the leakage of hydrogen sulphide. Finally, the unfortunate accident, that broke the thin plastic bottom of the water reservoir and caused a series of large scale leaks that managed to pollute a part of the Vuoksi waters. When problems of this scale occur there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
The recent news from Talvivaara mine is that it is applying a complete reorganisation of the company that gives it extension to avoid a total bankruptcy.
However, Talvivaara cannot be compared to any other mine in Finland, because the bioleaching technology they use is so exceptional. The bacteria together with sulphuric acid dissolves the mineral from ore. It is a unique example in Finnish context. The other mines in Finland still use traditional mechanic and chemical ways for separating the minerals and metals from the ore.
Nevertheless, all the mines, face challenges that are common to all of them. They have to respond to many expectations and to gain their acceptance. They must be transparent and interactive enough to build trust in the surrounding community and in the society, as whole.
There are four major prerequisites that mines have to fulfill: economic, environmental, social and cultural sustainability. The right technology is needed to fulfill these prerequisites. The first couple of prerequisites are strictly regulated by regulation whereas the demand of social sustainability is in the law, but with no specific criteria how to fulfill it. It is however natural, that the social sustainability is required also by the financers in order to avoid the complaints that would delay the opening of the mine.
No self-respecting company can operate without producing a social impact study in order to gain the trust of the local people. In addition, taking into account the Sami perspective and especially their traditional livelihood, reindeer herding, is already included in the new mining law.
Fulfilling these expectations is just the beginning for gaining trust. A well-managed and responsible mine requires constant interaction with the society, constant evaluation and improvement of its practices, strict maintenance of safety regulations and continuous awareness of possible impacts on surrounding nature. A well-managed mine takes good care of its workers, as well.
The ultimate proof of how responsible a company has been is defined by what it leaves behind after the mine closes after a few decades of operation. In the best case, this is a healthy sustainable environment and community.