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14th April 2022
Water security will be growing focus of ESG issues in mining industry: Bennett Jones lawyer

By Zena Olijnyk
12 Apr 2022
The increasing focus governments have put on water security, and water management means the mining industry will need to adapt to new environmental social and governance (ESG) standards, says Bennett Jones partner Sharon Singh.

“There have always been water-related issues within the mining industry,” says Vancouver-based Singh. She says these issues don’t only arise in locations where water is scarce but in regions like Canada where water is seen as abundant.

In her province, Singh points to how climate change and extreme weather events strengthen the call for the protection and restoration of British Columbia’s watersheds to ensure healthy ecosystems that support communities with secure access to clean water.

The water concerns, she says, are “acutely highlighted in British Columbia given the forest fires and the flooding that we have experienced and the need to build climate resiliency, and climate adaptation – it is permeating the public policy discourse.”

The provincial government recently announced it is developing B.C.’s first Watershed Security Strategy, with a related fund to deal with the identified concerns. The first stage is to explore key themes, including governance, climate change, ecosystems, sources of drinking water, and community and economic stability. To that end, B.C. released a discussion paper and is developing the strategy with Indigenous communities and other levels of government.

“Climate change and cumulative human impacts are threatening the health of the watersheds we depend on for clean drinking water, growing our food, habitat for aquatic species and healthy local economies,” said Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman when the watershed security strategy was introduced in January.

“We need to ensure healthy watersheds for strong communities and ecological health, so we are collaborating with Indigenous Peoples and all British Columbians to build a legacy of healthy rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers for our children and grandchildren.”

Oliver Brandes, co-director of the University of Victoria’s POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, said at the time of the announcement: “Without watershed security, the costs of climate and flood impacts grow, droughts endure, wildfires intensify, salmon die, forests fail, soil is lost, food cannot grow, local economies falter and conflict mounts.”

Singh’s background as a lawyer includes working for a global mining company, Rio Tinto. A regulatory and ESG lawyer, she has worked closely with government agencies and community groups related to environmental concerns on projects.

“I have been lucky enough to work on the concept of water as a public good and how mining projects and their use of water fit into that idea of public good,” she says. Questions inevitably come up, weighing the economic benefit of a mining project against ESG concerns, including those related to water, and how to potentially mitigate these concerns can potentially be mitigated.

She says there’s also the emerging concept of treating water as “a person” and giving it all the rights associated with personhood. It’s a concept that started in New Zealand and “is catching on around the world.”

The abundance of water in places like Canada has meant that it is sometimes taken for granted, Singh says, but she notices the discussion around water management has shifted. “There has always been the idea, at least somewhere in the background, that we must treat water carefully, as it is a public good,” she says. “What we see more of these days is a public policy discussion on water management and whether certain projects be built or allowed to continue, how to develop a water management plan, and realistically assess what level of discharges into the water system are acceptable from an environmental perspective.”

Singh adds that mining companies can expect to see more stringent rules, not less, over time. “They will need to look at ways of future-proofing their business in ways that consider water strategies.”

In mining, Singh acknowledges that water use and discussions on effluent discharges into water sources have always had a direct material impact on a company. Questions can include whether a project negatively affects water and if the concerns, rights, and needs of Indigenous communities near mining projects may face water quality issues.

There also needs to be a discussion of the trade-offs in reducing environmental impact from one source to potential increased impact from another. A good example, Singh says, is lowering climate damage from fossil fuels by encouraging other forms of energy that still could have an environmental impact. For instance, if electric cars are the future when dealing with climate change, society must also acknowledge that the mining of lithium, a key component in batteries, is necessary.

Mining companies now describe elements like lithium as “critical minerals” because they are essential to modern society and deal with broader climate issues – from electric cars to cell phones.

Finally, Singh says, there needs to be an even stronger emphasis on research and development in water management and what it could mean for the mining industry.

“The R&D piece is critical,” she says, noting that the mining industry has supported research through programs such as the Mining Innovation Challenge on water use. It calls on cleantech and technology providers to bring forward ideas to help reduce water use intensity at operating mines.

The winning concept will receive $150,000 in prize money and the potential opportunity to pilot their innovation at a B.C. mine. The challenge is led by the Mining Association of British Columbia and Foresight Canada, in partnership with the Government of British Columbia, Newcrest Mining, Teck Resources Limited, Natural Resources Canada, PwC, the Bradshaw Research Initiative for Minerals Mining (BRIMM), the Global Mining Guidelines Group and the Mining Suppliers Association of BC.

Says Singh: “I think R&D and innovation will play a big role in coming up with solutions for water management and treatment in the mining industry.”