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Addressing the Dilemmas of Long-Term Mining Impacts Using a Framework of Sustainability and Adaptive Management

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  • Many operating hard-rock sulfide mines are predicted to require perpetual post-closure management to prevent environmental degradation. Causes include evaporative concentration of metals and other solutes in pit lakes, and acid rock drainage from sulfide waste-rock, tailings, and pit benches. Dilemmas posed by the prospect of perpetual management include: 1. uncertainty in predictive models typically prevents reliable bounding on forecasts for the timing or magnitude of environmental impacts; 2. comprehensive closure designs that can meet environmental standards may not be economically possible, particularly when applied retroactively to mines permitted under less stringent closure requirements; 3. the publication of site-specific environmental analyses in peer-reviewed journals are discouraged in the current regulatory environment, hindering scientific advancement; and 4. the durability of financial and government institutions cannot be assured for the long-time horizons over which mine impacts are predicted to occur. Re-evaluating mine closure in a framework of sustainable development (as proposed by the Mining Mineral Sustainable Development forum), can resolve, in part, these dilemmas. Key sustainability goals include: assurance of the social and economic well-being of the local community; assurance of the long-term environmental integrity of the region; and establishment of institutions capable of addressing (and learning from) long-term environmental management. Under a sustainability framework, impractical plans for immediate attainment of perpetually-stable closure may be replaced with a fund for long-term management of environmental impacts (eg through contaminant migration controls and exposure barriers), and a set-aside long-term growth reserve intended to eventually fund more complete closure. Fund expenditures would follow Adaptive Management—a template for environmental-management institutions in which knowledge accumulated and uncertainty acknowledged explicitly. Under adaptive management, trusts would be flexible entities, supporting an evolving program of monitoring, predictive model refinement, and treatment. Periodic value of information analyses would target data collection efforts, refining the balance between predictable cost and uncertainty. This framework could overcome present-day financial shortcomings, enhance the field of environmental science, and meet the needs of future generations through the propagation of capita.

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