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In a world that needs metals, how can we mine more responsibly?

Deer Horn Capital is seeking one of the newest and most highly regarded global mining standard certificates for its tellurium project in B.C. — a first for Canadian exploration companies

It may not have the allure of gold, but as a key component of solar panels, next generation batteries and computer memory chips, there is a rush on finding new deposits of tellurium, a so-called critical metal. 

It’s produced in small amounts as a by-product of heavy metal mining, but a potentially richer source is in the Coast Mountains, south of Smithers, B.C. That’s where Vancouver-based Deer Horn Capital hopes to dig up 10,000 tonnes of rock in 2021 as a bulk test, a first step toward building a small tellurium, gold and silver mine. 

But even before the company starts blasting, Deer Horn is breaking ground. It is one of the first mining-related firms in Canada to join the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, or IRMA. Deer Horn was the first exploration company to work with the sustainable and responsible mining standard and remains the only one that has made those efforts public. 

“We want to do it right from the start,” explains Tony Fogarassy, Deer Horn’s chairman. “There are too many crappy mines out there. For things to change, we need a different approach. IRMA represents that different approach.”

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Interest is growing in standards that guide the mining industry toward more responsible and sustainable ways of doing business. Consumers, the companies that use metals, NGOs and communities are increasingly scrutinizing the ethics and practices of an industry with a notorious record of environmental disasters, abandoned projects and allegations of human rights abuses.

The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance is one of the newest of more than a dozen mining standards. But most are narrow in focus or lack independence. Some concentrate on single issues like workers’ rights or particular parts of the industry, such as the supply chain. Others were developed by the mining industry without oversight or are just aspirational. There is an appetite for something better.

When the State of Sustainability Initiatives, a project that examines all kinds of industry standards, looked at 15 different mining standards in 2018, it ranked the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance at the top.

“IRMA comes closest to providing a comprehensive mining standard covering every societal indicator relevant to mining,” they noted. And a study by the German Institute for Geoscience and Natural Resources and Ulm University in Germany found the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance demanded the highest requirements from the mining industry among 19 initiatives they examined. 

The path to IRMA certification

The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance standard emerged from the backlash of a series of high profile mine accidents in the 1990s, including a tailings pond failing at the Omai Gold Mine in Guyana, which polluted 80 kilometres of river, and the Doñana Disaster in Spain, which cost $360 million to clean up. The standard response from critics of industry practice was to oppose all mining, especially new developments. Alan Young, who has been involved with the initiative since the beginning, says he and the other founders looked at their phones and cars and household appliances and realized that was a hypocritical attitude. 

“I started to ask myself ‘What would responsible look like?’ ” says the Ottawa-based sustainable mining consultant and a member of the initiative’s steering committee.

The initiative launched in 2006. It took the 14 years that followed to settle on the final assessment requirements and process. 

“Taking a long time is a good sign,” Young says. “It shows it is stable and well thought out.”

Solar tellurium

Tellurium is used in solar panels, as well as other products, but is very rarely the primary metal sought out at mines — as it is under Deer Horn Capital’s project. Photo: Science in HD / Unsplash

The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance assesses individual mines, not the companies that own them. The process starts with a mine conducting a self-assessment against 400 benchmarks — things like health and safety for workers, human rights, community engagement, pollution control and land reclamation planning. 

When it’s ready to be scored, the mine pays a fee, starting at $90,000, and an independent auditor reviews the mine. (IRMA is working on a funding mechanism to help smaller mines take part.) This stage is public and anyone can make presentations to the auditor. The auditor scores the mine against those 400 points to determine its certification level: 100 being the highest and 75 and 50 showing high performance with room for improvement. Any score below 50 doesn’t receive certification. In addition, there are 40 critical areas, such as child labour, that the mine must ace to receive any certification.

Fogarassy first heard about the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance in 2019. The group behind the newly finalized standard hosted an event in Vancouver, inviting members of the mining industry to hear their pitch. At the time, Fogarassy was working toward a permit for bulk sampling at the Deer Horn project. This is a standard exploration phase that is basically a test run. Digging up 10,000 tonnes of rock is tiny compared to a mine, but involves many of the same operations and impacts: roads, waste water, environmental assessments and especially First Nations rights and titles. 

Beyond an exploration company chairperson, Fogarassy is also a lawyer and has advised First Nations governments and Indigenous-owned businesses as well as industry on mineral, oil and gas, and renewable energy projects. Before staking a claim, collecting a rock or even setting foot on the Deer Horn exploration project site, he approached the four local First Nation bands to ask for consent to operate on their land. It was one of the first times this was done in B.C. He continued to consult and ask for consent at each new phase of the project, believing this is the future of mining exploration in the province.

When Fogarassy first opened the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurances assessment criteria he immediately honed in on the standard’s language around Indigenous rights.

“IRMA set the bar for free, prior and informed consent,” he says. “Their language was exactly what Deer Horn was living by.”  

As he read further he saw Deer Horn was a good fit for other aspects. “I thought our plan for the project could meet the standard,” he says. “It would help us stand out among a thousand junior exploration companies. It would be something we could point to and raise up our flag pole.”

Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, says three things set the standard apart from other certifications: it’s applicable, it’s equitable and it’s credible.

The organization’s 10-person board of directors includes two representatives from five stakeholder houses: mining companies, purchasers, non-government organizations, affected communities and unions. They aim for consensus. When that fails, a house can block a decision. “The idea is to create value for all stakeholders,” Boulanger says.

And auditors are independent from the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, the mining industry and suppliers. Scores are transparent and open to challenge. 

More than 60 non-profit organizations, governments and mining-affected community organizations — including the BC Mining Law Reform Network, WWF and the Sierra Club — have referenced the standard as a template for stronger laws and regulations or a recommendation for mines, Boulanger says. 

However, a standard is only worthwhile if shoppers and sellers buy into it. Here, too, the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance looks promising. The BMW Group became a member of the initiative in January 2020 to support its commitment to transition to responsible metal sourcing. Microsoft and Tiffany & Co have seats on the board with similar aspirations. Other board members include IndustriALL Global Unions, representing more than 50 million mining and manufacturing workers, industry giants Anglo American and ArcelorMittal, and First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining. 

Certification isn’t a silver bullet for industry pitfalls

Fogarassy expects all the tellurium from a future Deer Horn mine would go to a couple solar panel manufacturers looking to lock in supply that won’t come with potential controversy — like polluting a salmon stream, for instance. He expects more and more metals buyers to have similar requirements in the near future.

The finance dollars to build the mines will follow, says Jamie Bonham, director of corporate engagement at NEI Investments, an ethical investment fund. 

“Our investment thesis is that companies meeting best practices will perform better over the long term,” Bonham says. “The fact that IRMA is a third-party certification brings a level of assurance that is near impossible to find currently.” 

Mining watchdogs and environmental groups are more cautious, welcoming the initiative’s detail and scope but recognizing that it is a poor stand-in for stricter mining regulations and laws.

“The problem with IRMA, as with any standard, is it’s voluntary and the only consequence for failing is failing the standard. There are no fines or jail time,” says Jamie Kneen, communications co-ordinator for MiningWatch. “The adoption of standards like IRMA is a stark illustration of the failure of governments to govern.”

Some specific aspects of the standard could use work, too, says Nikki Skuce, director of Northern Confluence, a group working on land use and environmental issues in northern B.C. Her biggest concern is with mine waste and water pollution. These issues were particularly contentious among the initiative’s board of directors, Boulanger says. In the end the board decided a mine that dumps waste into natural water bodies, whether it’s ocean, river or lakes, would not qualify for any level of the standard. Tailing ponds are allowed, but with strict conditions and monitoring requirements.  

New global standards for mine waste won’t prevent dam failures, critics say

At the Deer Horn project, an independent engineering plan called for dry stacking, where tailings are dewatered and stacked rather than stored in liquid form. “If they had recommended a tailings pond we wouldn’t have done it anyway,” Fogarassy says. “We want to build this mine with the best available technology. Mines use tailings ponds because it’s cheap.”

Skuce would also like to see the addition of a standard for exploration projects, an idea Boulanger sees value in. 

“If you don’t [develop a project] right, from the start, you build a weak foundation to develop a mine on,” she says. “You can’t get prior, informed consent after the fact.”

The larger exploration community is not as enthusiastic as Fogarassy. The Association for Mineral Exploration, an industry group based in B.C., says most exploration companies don’t have the skills and worker resources to conduct the self-assessment or the budgets to afford them. 

Fogarassy figures most won’t like the demands of free, prior and informed consent either. The staking process is usually secretive, so Deer Horn’s approach of consultation from the earliest days of the project has elicited a mix of scorn and ire from other exploration companies. “First Nations are often the last to know about a new exploration tenure in their lands,” he says. 

The future of better mining practices

An exploration standard through the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance is probably years away. And the first certified operating mine hasn’t yet been announced.

Two audits were conducted at the Carrizal mine in Mexico and at Anglo American’s Unki mine in Zimbabwe over the last year. Both are complete, but the companies have 12 months to make improvements and be reassessed before making the results public. 

Sixteen other mines all over the world, including in Canada, are in the self-assessment phase. And then there are a handful of exploration companies, like Deer Horn, that are using the standard to guide their operations, so if they do become operating mines they will be lined up to achieve the certification. 

“We know we have a better chance of developing the project and finding lenders and investors than those that work to the absolute minimum standard,” Fogarassy says. “The fact is the market place is demanding responsible mining. Competition is going to raise the bar. And IRMA is going to help us get there.”

Updated Oct. 16, 2020 to clarify management of waste water on mine sites vs. the management of tailings ponds, and how IRMA handles the issue of tailings ponds.

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