The Mine Development Process
Mine development is a complex long-term process that starts well before a mine is built and continues well beyond when the mine is closed. During the exploration stage, the first step is a public outreach or stakeholder consultation program
. A mining or exploration company usually begins this stage when it acquires or discovers a mineral project with economic potential or plans an initial work program to test the potential of a mineral prospect.
In British Columbia, most companies understand that they must begin their consultation programs early so that local communities, First Nations leaders and other stakeholders be involved in the project by understand the scope and objectives of the work programs and the safeguards that will be incorporated into these programs to protect the environment. Early consultation helps companies understand local values and address issues of concern that may be raised by First Nations leaders and other stakeholders. This two-way dialogue also helps the public understand that only a few prospects ever become operating mines, and that all mine proposals must undergo a lengthy and rigorous environmental assessment process open to broad public scrutiny.
The consultation process usually increases as the project advances to the stage where a preliminary economic assessment (or scoping study) is completed. This study is the first time that current economics are tied to the project. Following the preliminary findings of a scoping study, a company will move to the pre-feasibility and feasibility stages, and may at the same time, enter the environmental assessment and permitting process. This stage provides more specific findings about the project's design and economics than the scoping study. Government agencies, environmental groups and non-governmental organizations will also carefully scrutinize any mine project that advances to this advanced stage of environmental assessment and permitting. Mining companies must consult and engage with a broad range of stakeholders in order to develop public understanding and support for their projects over time, and thereby gain a "social license" to operate.
Another important early step in project design is collecting data for environmental baseline studies
because it is the cornerstone of environmental planning for any proposed mine. Data collected from these exhaustive and rigorous studies help the company, government agencies and stakeholders understand the state of the environment near the proposed project before it is built, including wildlife, vegetation, air and water quality, fisheries, wetlands, and cultural resources among others. The data also contribute information for the mine-planning process, form the basis of an environmental assessment required by government agencies, and support the permitting process.
The Environmental Assessment Process
In 2002, the British Columbia government introduced a new, streamlined Environmental Assessment (EA)
process for all proposed major projects in the province. The Environmental Assessment Act
requires all major mine proposals to obtain an Environmental Assessment Certificate
before they can proceed. Simply put, the EA process is a way to review major projects, assess their potential impacts, and address a broad range of environmental, economic, social, health, heritage and cultural issues. The goals of this integrated process are to ensure that all issues and concerns raised by all groups are considered, studied, addressed or mitigated, and that the proposed project will be developed in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. An EA must be successfully completed and the proposed project must be approved by two provincial government Ministers before it can proceed.
The federal government also plays an important role in mine development, as more than 70% of major projects undergoing a provincial EA will also require a federal assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA)
. Similar to the provincial EA, the federal environmental assessment is a planning tool that anticipates adverse environmental impacts so they can be minimized and mitigated. Federal environmental assessments are required if the proposed project has a trigger which can include: an act under federal authority, federal money is involved or federal lands are involved.. As an example, a federal EA is required for projects with potential to impact any fishery under the jurisdiction of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). The CEAA process is administered by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency
When a project falls under both provincial and federal EA responsibility, the two levels of government will cooperate and may carry out a single harmonized EA while still maintaining their respective decision-making powers.
An EA is also planning tool used to identify the potential effects of a project on the environment, including air, water, land, wildlife and human settlements before it is built. Through good planning, a company can reduce the length, complexity, cost, potential for controversy and corrective action and other risks that may be associated with the environmental assessment and permitting process. A well-planned EA makes it easier for government agencies and other decision-makers to have the information they need to approve projects acceptable projects.
Once a company applies to the province of British Columbia's Environmental Assessment Office (EAO)
with a proposal for a project, the EAO determines how the review (if required) should be conducted. The EAO then issues an order for the project review that includes what will be assessed, the consultation requirements and the review process. The Application Information Requirements
are usually developed by the company after consultation with First Nations, government agencies and the public. The company then conducts studies and prepares its application based on the pre-determined information requirements of the Application.
Key elements of the EA process include: a detailed description of the project and proposed facilities - such as the size, scope, and type of mine and processing facilities --- and power, road and infrastructure requirements, expected mine life, and other technical details. The EA considers the potential environmental and socio-economic effects of proposed mines and ways to minimize, avoid, or mitigate any potential adverse effects. The review is conducted by the EAO through a process determined by the Minister of Environment, usually a panel or commission. First Nations, government agencies and the public are asked to review and comment on the application, usually during a formal public comment period.
Findings of the review are documented in an Assessment Report
prepared by the EAO that is then referred to two Ministers for a decision as to whether the project should be approved and an Environmental Assessment Certificate issued. Once the project is approved, the company receives the necessary permits and authorizations to construct and operate the proposed mine (subject to obtaining any local permits that may also be required). Companies are required to restore the land to productive use after the mine is closed, and in some cases must also implement long-term monitoring programs.