This commentary was originally published in the Northern Miner on November 05, 2001
Sustainable development in the mining industry means the creation of lasting benefits after an orebody is exhausted. People often ask how the exploitation of a non-renewable natural resource can be compatible with the concept of sustainable development. The soon-to-be-decommissioned Sullivan mine in Kimberley, B.C., provides the answer.
The mine began production in 1909, about 12 years after the ore body was discovered. Already profitable, the mine became even more so when, in 1916, Cominco developed the processes necessary to separate lead and zinc ores in the milling process. Since that time, the mine has produced ore containing some 17 million tonnes of zinc and lead metal and more than 285 million oz. of silver for a total value, to the British Columbia economy, of more than $20 billion in today’s prices.
The 9 million tonnes of lead produced by the Sullivan mine from 1909 to 1999 translate into enough lead to produce 500 million lead-acid batteries for automobiles, or five years of North American production. The mine also produced enough zinc — 8 million tonnes — to supply the zinc content in 160 million cars.
Over the past 91 years of operation, the average number of employees has exceeded 1,000. With salary (and benefits) estimated to average $68,000 per employee, the total contribution from the mine to employees has exceeded $5 billion. Taxes, payments to suppliers and the purchase of local and provincial services, along with smelting and refining of concentrates in Trail, B.C., have constituted a good part of the mine’s $20-billion direct contribution to the local and provincial economies.
Beyond the direct contribution, economists often refer to the indirect effects of a major resource industry; these include economic contributions to the local retail industry, purchases of services, housing, education, and so on. This would amount to three times the direct contribution or another $60 billion in total gross provincial added to the provincial economy from Sullivan over its long and illustrious life.
The mine started up when environmental risks were far less understood than they are today. No one was aware that tailings and waste rock could make runoff water acidic and polluted. However, as this awareness increased, Cominco pioneered the development of high-density sludge water treatment and installed the world’s first plant designed to treat acidic drainage water.
In order to leave behind a positive environmental legacy, Cominco (now Teck Cominco) is reclaiming all of the tailings deposits and waste dumps in the area. This will bring them back to a level that will sustain wildlife and natural use for the long-term future. This initiative is based on research with special soil and rock covers that began 22 years ago.
Today, Teck Cominco designs mines for closure in order to minimize the environmental consequences and the cost of reclamation. This was not the case in the early part of this century. However, the company recognizes its responsibility in ensuring that Sullivan is environmentally safe and will spend in the order of $70 million toward that end.
One of the keys to sustainability is ensuring that current practices do not hamper the opportunity of future generations to pursue their best interests. Far from hampering that opportunity, Sullivan has vastly enhanced it. The social capital created by the mine’s operations, which includes an educated community and an infrastructure in the form of schools and hospitals, roads and other services, has given the city of Kimberley the foundation on which it can build its future. Cominco and the city of Kimberley teamed up in the early 1990s to transform the city into a tourist and retirement destination.
Land that was held by Cominco over the years has been turned over to the city so that recreational facilities can be developed: the company helped develop the Kimberley ski hill many years ago and it is now a successful private enterprise. Also, a new, 27-hole golf course known as Bootleg Gap, scheduled to open next summer in Kimberley, will enhance the area’s reputation as a golf destination, and tourists will find much of historical interest at the Sullivan Mine Interpretive Centre.
— At the time of publication, the author was the senior vice-president of environment and corporate affairs for Teck Cominco.