Dec '10/Jan '11

The risk of remaining silent

Engagement and good faith key to communicating the mining message

By Dan Zlotnikov

Goldcorp’s human resources coordinator Daniel Guay chats with local Cree elders Isaac and Jane Visitor at the company's Eleonore project in Wemindji, Quebec | Photo courtesy of Goldcorp

For anyone curious about the air quality around Syncrude’s upgrader facilities near Ft. McMurray, the answer is not far away. At about nine in the morning on Monday, December 6, for example, the UE-1 air quality monitoring station reported concentrations of 17 parts per billion of nitrogen dioxide and 2.4 parts per billion (ppb) of sulphur dioxide, well below their respective guideline levels of 212 ppb and 172 ppb. The levels may be different today. To find out, just visit the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) website.

The monitoring station is one of 15 being run by the WBEA, a joint initiative by oil sands operators, the Alberta government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local Aboriginal communities. The data are regularly updated and available online for anyone to see.

In the communications battle raging over the oil sands, the WBEA — whose programs include terrestrial as well as human exposure monitoring — has done much to build trust and goodwill between the oil sands operators and the local residents.

In foreign jurisdictions, the industry is under similar scrutiny — despite the recent defeat of Bill C-300. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund projects that Asian GDP will be seven per cent for both 2010 and the year to come. For the foreseeable future, the importance of communication, transparency and trust is only likely to increase as demand for minerals rebounds. The marketplace is beginning to reflect this reality and the success of resource companies depends on how ready they are to meet this challenge.

Poor second cousin to top priority

Communicating a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts is not a simple process. In fact, with the various standards, agreements and compacts out there, the compliance obligations a company must undertake can seem unreasonable.

“That’s the complaint that is often levelled against CSR efforts,” says Ron Nielsen, senior director of the International Centre for Business Innovation and Strategy and senior associate with sustainable management consultancy ÉEM. “It just becomes a burden, and we should take a traditional perspective on what we’re doing.” But at the same time, failure to live up to the accepted CSR standards is only going to become more costly for a company as time goes on, ranging from higher insurance premiums to longer delays in securing government permits for a project.

“If you take an enlightened view, all of these efforts are going to help you perform and be in a stronger position, have a better reputation, improve your employees’ commitments to your efforts and just give you advantages on a number of fronts that are to your benefit,” Nielsen explains. “But if you rely on a traditional ‘business as usual, this is the way we’ve always done it’ approach and then try to layer CSR on top, it’s always going to be an uphill battle.”

Avoiding such battles, may require an olive branch and a measure of candour. “It’s a lot easier to engage with companies that will say ‘we’ve got a problem in these specific areas and we’d like to talk about how to resolve it,’ than companies that continually deny that there’s any problem in the face of mounting evidence,” says Jamie Kneen, outreach and communications coordinator for the civil society organization MiningWatch Canada. “I think that’s the first step in terms of engagement.”

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