Mine Closure 111: The Total Costs of Mining

Sulvian Mine
Sullivan Mine

In the past, mine closures were rarely planned in advanced and ad hoc. Equipment and materials deemed worthless were left behind, mine entrances were neglected, and the hope was that nature would restore the land. The effects on nearby communities were often seen as a normal part of the natural economic cycle of boom and bust.

However, a new approach is being developed to plan for more sustainable outcomes from the outset. Appropriate closure can result in mines becoming engines for development beyond their own life, by minimizing adverse impacts and maximizing after-use benefits.

The Bradshaw Institute for Minerals and Mining (BRIMM) at The University of British Columbia has created a class to address the need for mine closure standards and practitioners with BRIMM 111: New Perspectives on Mine Closure.

BRIMM had a chance to sit down with the lead instructors, André Xavier, Ph.D. and Jocelyn Fraser, of this new innovative course to get insights into mine closure and what this course offers to the students and the mining industry.

BRIMM: How did you come to teach a class about mine closure?

Jocelyn Fraser: I’ve been at UBC since 2014, where my research and teaching focus has been on the social dimensions of mining. During the past decade a lot of focus was on getting mines permitted, built and operating built. But there was less conversation on mine closure. 

That was really interesting to me, especially when by some estimates, there are more than a million abandoned mine sites around the world. Here in Canada alone, we have more than 10,000, and some really high profile cases of mine closure gone wrong. In my opinion, there’s a lot of social dimensions to mine closure which really have not been addressed. 

One of the first people I met when it came to UBC was Andre, and at that time he was busy finishing his PhD on mine closure and the social dimensions which led to a lot of interesting conversations over the years. 

When BRIMM was interested in developing a course on mine closure it seemed like a great way to explore the topic more fully and hear from people in the industry. We are hoping to  combine theories and ideas with applied perspectives from social performance in the mining sector at different stages of life, and see how they apply at closure.

BRIMM: Andre, How did you end up teaching about mine closure?

Andre Xavier: For me, I came from a different entry point. Initially, my focus was on the broader role that private companies play in society. Which was at a time when the concept of corporate social responsibility was just emerging. 

I’m talking about business in general, not mining just yet. Something that I realised early on was the importance of not just the quantity but the quality of the social investments made by companies.

There is always a push to have more money being directed to social investment, and I realised that this is important. But the issue is the quality of the social investment is critical. 

So fast forwarding many years, I started doing my degree at UBC, where my interest specifically shifted towards the mining industry. It was the social dimensions of mining, particularly CSR and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) topics. I wanted to understand the social, economic perspectives and implications related to mine  closure, which eventually was what I ended up studying in my PhD research.

During my studies, I looked at three different geographies: Yellowknife in Canada, Argentina in Patagonia, and Mongolia. These diverse case studies provided a variety of perspectives on how companies, communities, and governments perceive and prepare for the eventual closure of mines. 

Getting involved to teach this Mine Closure course was a natural progression for me. 

Jocelyn Fraser: One of the interesting ideas around social dimensions, corporate social responsibility, and environment, social and governance or ESG issues is that most approaches are anchored in a risk mitigation perspective. Companies often approach situations where there’s some sort of a social dimension as a way to reduce the risk to their operations.

One of the things missing in the conversation can be the flip side of risk –  the opportunities that can be available. As Andre mentioned, we are curious about  the opportunities that could be available  for mining companies, communities in government to collaborate and tackle some of the big wicked problems of sustainability.

For example, are there opportunities to repurpose infrastructure to provide a just transition for people who are losing their job? Or to support communities that have hosted mining operations after those operations close? 

BRIMM: What kind students or professionals would be interested in this course?

Andre Xavier: We believe that everyone should take this course. In every course that we offer, we emphasise and advocate for the idea that any mine closure planning must include a multidisciplinary team.

If you have only engineers developing a closure plan, the plan will be unidimensional. Mining has evolved in terms of embracing and engaging more disciplines and backgrounds, but there is still room for improvement to achieving  integrated multidisciplinary planning. 

Nowadays, geologists, even in the exploration phase, are being asked questions related to post mining transition. Geologists must be aware of, and should have  at least a basic understanding of what constitutes a robust mine closure and post closure plan. 

It is the same thing for lawyers. Many professionals approach their work from this risk avoidance perspective, but successful engineering practices must integrate insights from sociology and anthropology. Therefore, it’s easy for us to build a case that everyone needs to be involved in mine closure planning and implementation.

Jocelyn Fraser: We hope it’s a course that will be  across different geographical jurisdictions. We have found in other classes that the perspectives of learners from  Latin America, from Australia, from different countries within Africa and, of course, from here in North America add a valuable dimension to the class

We’ve had good representation in other courses  from the corporate sector. I think it would be wonderful to see  more participation from civil society, from indigenous groups and other forms of government.

Many students came into previous classes thinking it was a traditional course on how to close a mine. But through the exercises and the assignments, students realise there is a whole different dimension to mine closure.

BRIMM: How do mining companies view mine closure?

Jocelyn Fraser: I think that traditionally the sector has viewed mine closure as a “race to relinquishment.” Once production has ceased, or once the asset no longer holds economic viability, companies have looked to relinquish the asset as quickly as possible.

One of the interesting things we’ve seen in the past is that companies don’t necessarily close those projects themselves. They sell them off to other companies potentially for repurposing or additional exploration. What this has led to, is huge a number of abandoned sites around the world. 

So when we ask people, what do you think about mine closure, it’s usually not a very pretty image that comes to their mind. This legacy of abandoned mines sites are sources of pollution. For example, the Britannia mine here in British Columbia used to be once the largest point source of toxic pollutants in North America. 

Andre Xavier: This course is important for everyone involved in the mining life cycle. The focus of mine closure in the past was often thought of when the closure was imminent. 

However, the perspective has shifted significantly. Now, even during the exploration phase, closure planning is important, though the level of detail varies across different phases.. 

Previously, the focus of mine closure was predominantly environmental, driven by stringent regulations and a growing recognition of our global interconnectedness. This holistic approach helps in preparing for closure right from the beginning, which is essential to avoid the environmental and socioeconomic issues witnessed in the past. 

Jocelyn Fraser: The Giant mine in Yellowknife and the Faro mine in the Yukon are two of the largest taxpayer funded remediation projects in Canada. These situations of poor past practice have coloured the industry’s reputation around closure. That’s a problem, but it also creates an opportunity to learn more about how to do it better. 

Giant Mine
Giant Mine

The old way of doing it was to remediate the land, so that it was restored as closely as possible to its pre-mining use. But we may have missed the opportunity to talk with the nearby communities about what future land use they would like to see. We’re now seeing all kinds of interesting post mining land uses that were not considered 20 or 30 years ago. 

BRIMM: Has that changed at all? Or is that something we’re hoping to change kind of over the time as an industry standard.

Jocelyn Fraser: In many jurisdictions closure plans are now required as a condition of permitting. This means companies have to do some financial forecasting for closure, which can be challenged at the feasibility stage of a project. The industry track record in terms of accurately forecasting the cost of closure is quite poor. 

Closure costs are often underestimated and tend to focus on the technical costs. One objective of this course is to help participants identify the non-technical costs of closure. 

Andre Xavier: This reminds me of the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF) report which surveyed several governments about their preparedness for mine closure.

The survey revealed that 86% of jurisdictions mandate some form of financial assurance for, however 14% have no such requirements. More critically, only 45% demand the full estimated cost of mine closure through financial assurance. This deficiency exposes many jurisdictions to financial, environmental, and social risks should a mine operator fail to fully execute the closure plan.

With the legacy of old mining sites, and as both the mining industry and societal expectations evolve, we anticipate a stronger push for substantial financial assurances across the globe. 

This trend is already evident in historical mining nations like Canada, Australia and the U.S.A. However, in developing nations where new mines are coming online, there is going to be a significant  learning curve. Our course aims to bridge this gap by equipping participants with the necessary knowledge and skills.

BRIMM: What are the specific kinds of social aspects that occur in mine closure?

Jocelyn Fraser: I think we have an interesting case right here in Canada. The diamond mines in the Northwest Territories are all scheduled to close within the next 10 years, and that represents a loss of GDP in the territory of about ~27%.

Diavik Mine
Diavik Mine

So the social ramifications of closure are quite large. For example, the loss of jobs and the loss of supply contracts for local businesses: how do we make sure that nobody gets left behind? Typically, when mines are closed, the infrastructure is burned, buried, or sold on.  Could that be repurposed?  Are there some social opportunities to reuse that infrastructure or redevelop that land in a different way? 

There are some fascinating cases around the world where people have done some really innovative things with old mine sites, from building trampoline parks and hotels to underground data storage or seed banks.

Andre Xavier: I believe that the impacts and challenges of a potential or imminent closure are not sufficiently studied. When a community faces the prospect of a mine closing, it experiences significant disruptions to its social fabric. The loss of  income and jobs from the mine leads to increased  stress and greater demands for social services. 

There is also a risk for migration. Individuals who have acquired skills may move elsewhere  seeking to maintain the same standard of living. This issue ties into social cohesion The anticipation of closure can erode local culture and cause health problems among the population. 

There is also an element of competitiveness among workers who are anxious about job security, which further strains community ties. These various social impacts are often overlooked in discussions about mine closure. This underscores  the need for a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to  planning mine closure.

BRIMM: One big aspect of mining is unexpected stoppages or closures of mines, how does a mining company or community plan for this?

Jocelyn Fraser: One of the things we do in the course is analyse topical events.  One topic that is generating a lot of interest in the spring of 2024 is the sudden closure of the Cobre Panama copper mine following the government’s decision not to renew its contract with First Quantum Minerals. How will  the mine closure be managed?  We take a look at those contemporary cautionary tales. 

FILE PHOTO: View of the Cobre Panama mine, of Canadian First Quantum Minerals, in Donoso, Panama, December 6, 2022. REUTERS/Aris Martínez
View of the Cobre Panama mine. REUTERS/Aris Martínez

Andre Xavier: That is always a big challenge for operators, for governments and for communities of interest. How do you get prepared for something that will catch you unprepared?

We spoke about this recently in one of the classes that we had. I think the obvious step is to have some sort of emergency mine closure plan in place, but recognizing that is unlikely to be the perfect closure plan.

BRIMM: Are there any famous examples of bad mine closure?

Andre Xavier: There was a case in Norway that is interesting. The region still had some coal mining operations left, however because of this shift towards a greener economy, an announcement was made to close the mine.

This situation brings up an interesting debate, while promoting a greener economy and reducing fossil fuel use is crucial, such decisions can have profound impacts on communities and miners. This is a dilemma that many countries around the world are currently facing.

Jocelyn Fraser: I think that’s an interesting example of the tension that can exist between two potentially competing goals. We want to transition to a low carbon economy but now we have these social considerations. 

In the course, we provide examples from countries all around the world. We talk about the legacy of abandoned sites and poor past practice. But we focus on the more ideal situation. What does a good closure plan look like? What does effective engagement with communities of interest to plan for closure look like?  

How do you engage your different stakeholders in conversations around closure? How do you think about the ways that the land could be repurposed? How can infrastructure be repurposed? How can we do things differently? 

So this is really a course about saying, this is where we were in the past. But what can we do differently and improve on industry practices? Specifically, how can we approach and integrate the social dimensions into closure planning, so that closure planning is not just about the technical or environmental.

BRIMM: Thank you very much for your time and I look forward to speaking again in the future and see the outcomes of your work.

Join BRIMM this summer to learn from André Xavier, Ph.D. and Jocelyn Fraser to understand the socio-economic implications of mine closure.

This popular course will be available two more times.

Cohort 2: June 10th to July 19th
Registration link here: https://courses.cpe.ubc.ca/browse/ubcv/faculty-of-applied-science/brimm/courses/brimm111-new-perspectives-on-mine-closure-summer-2024

Cohort 3: September 16th to October 25th
Registration link here: https://courses.cpe.ubc.ca/browse/ubcv/faculty-of-applied-science/brimm/courses/brimm111-new-perspectives-on-mine-closure-fall-2024

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