May 2011

Water scarcity a growing concern

Practices will come under greater scrutiny, say industry panelists

By Paul Brent

BioteQ’s water treatment processes recovers dissolved metals from wastewater | Photo courtesy of BioteQ Environmental Technologies

Water’s role as a critical resource for communities and mining firms, its scarcity and its usage were the focus of three presentations at the Mining, People and the Environment conference held in conjunction with the PDAC Convention in Toronto in March. The panelists included a mining engineer, the head of a water treatment company and an environmental researcher.

Water usage is “an increasingly important issue for the mining industry,” Rob Kerr, vice-president of research firm GlobeScan Inc., told attendees of the conference. Kerr, who chaired the panel on water usage, said public perception of mining companies currently ranks in the “low to average” range. His firm, which handles stakeholder research on issues and reputation management for a number of industries including mining, noted that in surveys of communities and stakeholders, “the importance of water never goes down.”

Citing Canadian figures, David Bleiker, senior associate engineer with Mississauga, Ontario-based engineering and project management firm AMEC, said that although mining processes account for a tiny portion of water usage, the industry’s impact can be outsized. “It is not necessarily the water we use, it is the water we affect,” he explained. “Let’s face it, when we screw up in the mining industry, it tends to stay around for a long time.”

Bleiker added that dealing with water issues comes down to “good solid science and engineering and then making sure that you communicate it well.” A key issue for the engineer is what he termed “water balances,” such as promising to have a zero discharge site, forgetting that water uses will differ when a mine progresses from exploration to operation and closure. Projects can have unintended and hard-to-predict effects on surface and groundwater. Hoped-for “zero discharge” projects, for example, may or may not be low impact with regards to water when it comes to nearby communities, he said.

David Kratochvil, president and COO of wastewater treatment company BioteQ Environmental Technologies Inc., presented his company’s innovative treatment solution for the mining industry. The Vancouver-based company’s multi-stage technology can remove saleable metals such as copper, zinc and cobalt from wastewater, then later, iron and aluminum, and finally, sulphate (saleable gypsum product), leaving behind clean, useable water. The process also removes hazards such as cadmium, lead and arsenic. “In a nutshell, we take water that is contaminated, cannot be discharged, cannot be reused, and we clean it so that it can be discharged or reused, and in the process of doing that, we generate saleable products that can be shipped offsite,” Kratochvil said.

Piet Klop, acting director of the Washington-based World Resources Institute, noted that the mining sector’s thirst for water is more pressing than ever before because of increasing water scarcity around the world. “And climate change is going to make everything worse still,” he said. Klop also predicted increasingly tough regulations and enforcement on water quality in the near future. “It may not happen everywhere,” he said. “But the trend is pretty clear; there is going to be a lot more scrutiny.”

In a question-and-answer session, the presenters agreed that mining companies are doing a better job handling water issues. “The industry is generally far more aware than ever before,” said Bleiker. “They are looking to use reclaimed water; they are looking to just reduce the footprint in general.”

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