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A few years ago, when the Rio Tinto decided to expand its iron ore production in Pilbara region of Western Australia, they faced a problem. While the remote region accounts for more than 40 percent of the world’s iron ore production, it is also one of the driest parts of the world. Ironically, however, the problem for Rio Tinto’s expansion was too much water: the new ore the company wanted to reach lay underneath huge underground aquifers, which meant that the company had to do something with the excess water that came up.

Not wanting to let such volumes of water go to waste, the company considered a number of options, including building recreational water parks or breweries, aquaculture, water bottling and solar-thermal power stations. In the end, however, Rio Tinto came up with a plan to divert water to irrigation to grow wheat, both as feed for cattle operations and to sell to local farmers.

Dennis Gibson, Chief Technical Officer for mining at Black & Veatch, pointed to the Pilbara mine as just one example of how a quiet revolution in mining company culture is leading to a much greater emphasis on sustainability and creative thinking in the industry. Gibson was general manager of the Pilbara project at the time of the water project’s initiation. He came to Black & Veatch in 2012 to help integrate and leverage the company’s expertise into the global mining sector.

“Mining companies have really upped their game when it comes to sustainability,” Gibson said. He compared the shift in thinking on sustainability to the culture of safety that has become a central part of how mines do business in the last few decades. Gibson believes that this growing emphasis on sustainable approaches offers new opportunities for partnerships both with local communities and with companies like Black & Veatch that can offer systems-level analysis and creative infrastructure for sustainable solutions.

An Industry in the Crosshairs

“In many ways, mining companies are under significant scrutiny when it comes to sustainability,” said Joseph Plubell, Senior Vice President, Global Strategic Programs at Black & Veatch. Mining companies, he said, are often on the front lines of critical judgment from both international non-governmental organizations demanding action on large-scale problems such as climate change, as well as from local activists concerned with water and pollution.

These pressures are only likely to increase in the coming years, Plubell added.

“Millennials, among other groups, are asking themselves: ‘Is what we’re doing making things better as we go forward?’ As those groups gain influence, they will continue to demand more sustainable, environmentally friendly approaches to all aspects of business.”

The good news, Plubell said, is that there are plenty of opportunities for mining companies to apply sustainability best practices from both within the mining industry and from other sectors. Integration of renewable energy resources and creative approaches to water recycling are just two examples of solutions that can transcend industry boundaries.

“We are working with some of the biggest IT and tech companies in the world right now, and they are very excited about sustainability,” said Plubell. “For instance, they are focused on reducing the carbon footprint of their data centers using renewable energy. There is also a big concern about water use, especially around data center cooling. So we are looking at creative solutions for water reuse in the industry, especially in both developed and developing countries.”

The Need for a Multi-faceted, Strategic Approach

Gibson suggests that ultimately mining companies will aim to integrate such strategic infrastructure solutions with broader and longer-term approaches to sustainable development. Such approaches, he said, will address not only environmental concerns, but will include social and economic aspects as well. And they will necessarily consider impacts that live on beyond the life of the mine.

Gibson points to the Richards Bay Minerals dune rehabilitation project in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, as an example. Over the last several decades, Richards Bay Minerals has actively rehabilitated a coastal dune forest by stockpiling and then replacing topsoil onto extracted mine tailings and reseeding. Importantly, said Gibson, restoration efforts focused not just on biodiversity but on supporting integrated sustainable land use for the local community.

Gibson believes the fact that 23 of the world’s largest mining companies have signed on to the “10 Principles” of the International Council on Mining and Minerals – which include ethical business practices, sustainable development, human rights and environmental stewardship among others – is a clear sign of where the industry is going.

“In essence, mining companies know that they have to pursue sustainability solutions — which include environmental, social and economic considerations — to ensure that they obtain and retain their social license to operate,” Gibson said. “The sustainability revolution in the industry has been substantial over the past number of years, and it’s still gaining momentum.”

Published originally on Black & Veatch Solutions.