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Managing environmental, social and economic issues

A professional geoscientist and planner offers some timely guidance to aggregate producers.


May 1, 2009
By Wayne Caston

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In the competitive, tight-margin business of quarrying and aggregate
production, cost management has long been one of the keys to success.

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In the competitive, tight-margin business of quarrying and aggregate production, cost management has long been one of the keys to success. Now, however, legislative and social changes are causing members of the industry to re-focus their efforts. They are finding that being able to manage the environmental, social and economic (ESE) implications of their operations are becoming essential to success.

Consider that in Ontario, for example, obtaining new pit or quarry Licences and related Permits used to take approximately four years but that now, the requirements are such that it typically takes closer to six or seven years. This can be a real problem for companies that are running out of reserves within their existing licenced areas, and who may face shutdown if they cannot receive the required approvals in time.

Success rates for applications also seem to be declining, so companies are less certain of receiving a green light at the end of the process. Even with all approvals in place, the conditions attached to a Licence or Permit, both prior to commencement of extraction and over the life of the operation, may be both onerous and expensive.

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These trends are being driven by several ESE issues facing pit and quarry operators in Canada. Environmental issues include an increasing emphasis on water, both in managing the water-takings and draw-down effects of these takings on other water supply sources, but also in ensuring that the water returned into the natural environment, for example, from quarry dewatering, meets regulatory standards. Social issues include local residents who are concerned about the impact of an extractive operation on their quality of life, factors that are not easily quantifiable. The economic activity that extraction brings to the area may be welcome, but local residents will not be pleased if most of the jobs at the pit or quarry go to skilled workers from outside. The local community will also be concerned about the costs a new or expanded operation may have on their own water supply, the natural environment and on roads and traffic.

Regulators, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), political leaders and the news media may take up the cause of local stakeholders if it is felt they are not being treated fairly. The result can be negative news coverage, political opposition, regulatory delays or even denial of approvals. This means that the risks and opportunities associated with ESE factors have become a major part of the decision process around both new pits and quarries, and for expansions of existing operations.

It is no longer enough for companies to deal with ESE factors as an add-on to their usual business practices, just more boxes to tick on a checklist. They also cannot be properly managed as separate components. Rather, these matters must be incorporated into the entire aggregate resources planning, development and management process, and right from the start.

As an example, pit and quarry operators have for many years used fixed screening devices, such as berms and tree screens, to mask the view of operations from outside the fence – particularly from roads and housing developments. These features, also serve to reduce noise and dust impacts. However, experience indicates that while many companies provide visual screening and noise attenuation for fixed structures such as processing plants, it is more difficult  provide it for highly mobile operations such as drilling. It is these noise sources that may do the most to damage relations with local stakeholders, and so screening them must also be incorporated into operational planning.

One of the reasons that ESE considerations often do not enter strategic decision-making is that the various external professionals who provide the information required for complete Licence and Permit application packages do not always work closely together. Often, this is because they work for different organizations, and some may be independent consultants. It is often the case that each consultant or firm completes its particular part of the package, and then sends its documentation to the applicant, unaware of what other disciplines are doing to support the application.

As a result, this lack of coordination and integration may result in an incomplete application package, delays in application review by regulatory agencies or even rejection of the applications, thus necessitating additional work to be carried out or studies to be undertaken.

While coordination and integration is the overall responsibility of the Project Manager, one way to manage information flow is through using the capabilities of networked information technology – a password-protected collaboration workspace can provide a place where members of the team, outside service providers, and the client can work together. The workspace can hold templates to be used in preparing reports, working documents, drawings, photographs, current drafts, and correspondence related to application process.   

One of the reasons that the development of pits and quarries frequently causes stakeholder opposition is because of fear of the unknown. Local residents, and others who may be affected by the proposed operation, may not have a clear idea of the steps that will be taken to manage their concerns, such as noise-abatement measures, advisory procedures or monitoring protocols.

It is important for such information to be provided to them in ways that they can understand. This includes making sure that Site Plans and technical reports are written in clear and understandable language, without excessive use of industry jargon. It is also important to provide the local community with readily available access to these documents, for example at a local library branch or on a dedicated web site.

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Graphics help, and in this area as well, members of the public can benefit from the capabilities of modern information technology. Realistic, computer-generated visualizations can easily be generated to show the progress the development from several points of view and over time. Nearby residents can literally see what it will look like from their living room. These visualizations can show change over the life of the operation – for example, what the project will look like in a few
years after a tree screen has grown.

Computer-generated visualizations can also show what the property will look like as progressive rehabilitation is carried out, and the final appearance of the property after rehabilitation has been completed.

The proper coordination and integration of an aggregate resource planning, development and management project, not only of the quantitative technical aspects, but also the more qualitative ECE factors, are critical to the long-term success of the operation. This extends not only to the initial licencing and permitting phase (planning and development), but also to the operational and rehabilitation phase (management) over the entire life of the pit or quarry.

Wayne Caston, P.Geo., MCIP, a professional geoscientist (licenced in Ontario) and professional planner, is a senior aggregate specialist in the Cambridge, Ont., office of Golder Associates.