A Resource More Valuable than Gold
Taking the Lead in Water Stewardship
“The message is water is very precious, and I will go to any lengths and direction to carry the water to the people.” – Josephine Mandamin, Water Walker and Protector
To demonstrate the importance of water, the late Josephine Mandamin, a grandmother, Elder and champion of water, travelled great lengths by foot, covering nearly 18,000 kilometres around the Great Lakes carrying water and her timely message.
Fortunately, like her, Ontario’s mining industry is working to ensure there is fair access to the resource and that its quality and quantity are preserved for present and future generations.
With more than 250,000 lakes and over 100,000 kilometres of rivers in Ontario, water stewardship has also gained legislative priority over the last several decades. The government has been working intensively to define the biggest threats to watersheds, and strategies to meet those threats.
A human right to uphold
Water is a human right, and the government’s duty is to uphold that right.
The Ontario Government has made great efforts to mandate water conservation, preservation, and safety, especially after the tragedy in Walkerton when E. coli contaminated the water supply resulting in thousands of illnesses and six deaths. Proper monitoring, testing in accordance with established benchmarks, and enforced compliance can safeguard against this reoccurring.
Legislation like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act lay the foundation and set the stage to form a strategy and action plan. This is advantageous for companies like those in the mining industry because there is clear guidance and the support necessary to get there. However, water stewardship can still be a complex matter given the number of agencies that oversee it and the myriad policies that regulate it.
Under the Ontario Water Resources Act (OWRA) and the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) the Ministry of Environment and Energy are tasked with setting the policies and guidelines related to the management of provincial water resources, including a framework for managing quality and quantity of surface and ground water to ensure it is safe for consumption, recreation and aquatic life.
Under OWRA, the ministry has power to regulate water supply, sewage disposal, and the control of pollution as it pertains to all surface and ground waters in the province. Under the EPA, contaminants are prohibited from being discharged into the natural environment, except when approval is granted and certified in accordance with the guidelines set out in these acts.
While the policies and guidelines have no formal legal status, they tend to become legally binding and provide the foundation for standard practices, as well as compliance and enforcement. Changes are often made incrementally, to give companies the opportunity to make the changes necessary to comply with the improved standards.
With the understanding that prevention is more effective than end-of-pipe treatment, the Ministry of Environment and Energy has placed great priority on preventing and minimizing the presence of pollutants wherever possible. Pollution prevention, the management of hazardous substances, and the municipal and industrial strategy for abatement (MISA), form the basis for its actions.
The Provincial Water Quality Objectives (PWQO) are also designed to protect aquatic life and ensure water safety for consumption and recreation. They provide a framework to improve water quality when samples test below benchmark levels. It is important that the government not only regulate quality and quantity, but also provide solutions to breaches in compliance when they occur.
Further to the Ministry of Environment and Energy, the Ontario Ministries of Natural Resources, the Ministry of Health and Agriculture, the Ministry of Food and Rural Affairs, various conservation authorities, the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Environment Canada also have jurisdiction over certain aspects of water management.
In Ontario, there are two major challenges impacting two vastly different parts of the province. In Southern Ontario, the rapid rate of industrialization and urbanization are creating greater pollution of the air and water, while in Northern Ontario, mining and other resource-dependent industries like pulp and paper and agriculture are the leading polluters.
Mining, in particular, has had to adapt to the changing regulations surrounding water, its use and protection and many companies are starting to understand their role and responsibility in preserving the health and wellbeing of vital ecosystems.
Toward Sustainable Mining® (TSM®) is a global program for mining companies that assists with the management of environmental and social sustainability efforts. The best way to do that is to evaluate and report performance based on established standards, which are increasingly becoming requirements of membership in mining associations worldwide.
It is important for mining companies to implement a water management system and accompanying system of accountability, and to use tools like water budgets, which help build a water balance forecast based on seasonal conditions and climate change.
Of course it’s hardly ever easy being at the mercy of Mother Nature, and wet and dry seasons will have different implications for a mine’s water flows. Operators need to be aware of changes in water volumes and water budgets – and prepared for them – to mitigate the challenges of seasonality.
Planning ensures companies are both responsible and accountable for their actions. This requires buy-in from executive leadership, the adoption of a water monitoring program, water-management training, and the establishment of performance objectives and the means of achieving them. Training, or the lack of it, was a major issue in the Walkerton tragedy.
With an adequate water management infrastructure and a commitment to using water-balance forecasts to model water quality over the life-cycle of a mine, operators can minimize the impacts to the watershed and surrounding environment from potential toxic run-offs.
Engagement is the key
Engagement is an especially important part of water stewardship and something that the mining industry is putting into action through groups dedicated to watershed governance and preservation. Together, the industry is conscientiously assessing impacts to watershed ecosystems to improve performance and lessen environmental impact in the future.
Between 2017 and 2018, there was a concerted effort to bring the mining industry together to develop a set of performance indicators that would help to measure and govern water standards in mining operations, including benchmarks for reporting at the mine-site level, as well as operational water-management standards, watershed-level planning, and water performance.
This effort resulted in the expansion of the TSM® initiative that will be phased in over the next several years with public reporting scheduled to begin this year. Dubbed the Mining Association of Canada’s (MAC) Water Stewardship Protocol, the goal is to strengthen industry standards including TSM®, building upon its Water Stewardship Policy Framework established in 2015.
The Water Stewardship Protocol is a tool that is available for companies to be able to implement the commitments defined in the framework, including water governance, operational water management, watershed-scale planning and water-reporting and performance indicators, while also going above and beyond what is legally required.
Level A is the highest achievement under the Protocol, achieved when a facility has demonstrated that all commitments and accountabilities are in place and align with the Water Stewardship Framework.
This requires water-related plans and management systems to be implemented including the preparation of a water balance, and the introduction of a water monitoring program, as well as response and contingency plans if water-related risks or incidents should transpire. Accidents happen, but proper preparation can reduce the impact to the environment and watershed.
A challenge is an opportunity
Engagement is an important part of achieving Level A status, as companies are expected to create a dialogue with other water users and stakeholders in the watershed, promoting collective planning and governance activities when possible.
Ultimately, to be in compliance with Level A standards, companies are required to establish targets and measure their performance against those benchmarks, reporting on that performance publicly to demonstrate its efforts.
Any comprehensive solution to preserving and improving the quality and quantity of Ontario’s enviable natural water supply will require a collaborative effort between both the private and public sector.
There are countless challenges, but an equal number of opportunities to improve water stewardship at all levels, and in the mining industry in particular. As the industry works to establish the right balance between development, growth, profit, and environmental sustainability, there are countless organizations and agencies ready to support them in that endeavour.