Why do we need Mines? Can we reduce our Reliance on Mining?
Just like farming, fishing and forestry, mining is a primary industry, meaning that it involves the extraction of raw materials for their conversion into products. Anything reliant on the use of metal is reliant on mining, and hence mining has been a fundamental requirement for the preservation and advancement of human society itself since the beginning of the Bronze Age. Ireland currently has one active metal mine (the world-class Tara zinc mine near Navan, Co. Meath), however mining is a worldwide activity, with much of it being undertaken in places such as South America, Australia and Africa. The European Union has an obligation to search for areas for potential mining within Europe, to secure a safe and sustainable supply of metals. It is important to reduce reliance on other countries should political tensions arise in the future, in addition to guaranteeing the environmental and ethical application of mining practices.
A good case study for this is the production of cobalt: Cobalt is an essential metal in smartphones and other electronics, as well as the batteries utilised in renewable energy storage. Approximately 60% of global cobalt production is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a portion of which being extracted by the unethical use of child workforces, earning its name from such places as "blood cobalt". This is one of the reasons that has promoted the search for this metal within Europe so that reliance on the DRC can be reduced, and to ensure an ethical production of this material. Similarly, the construction of electric cars and wind turbines requires a lot of rare 'critical' metals and so a movement towards renewable energies for climate incentives, goes hand-in-hand with the responsibility of sustainably mining these metals. Therefore, the importance of mining throughout history and in the present cannot be underestimated, and is best summarised in the old adage: "If it can't be grown, it has to be mined."
Does Mineral Exploration always lead to Mine Development?
On average across the world, less than one in a thousand exploration projects will be developed into a mine. Mine setup is an extremely expensive and lengthy process, commonly taking more than 10 years from the initial start of exploration, and usually requiring millions of dollars of investment. Because of this, it is an extremely risky business venture for a company, and so only after thorough exploration work and satisfaction of environmental and legal requirements, will this decision be undertaken. Additionally, because of increasing environmental standards and the depletion of more readily discoverable ore deposits, these odds will likely decrease further. To put this into context, in Ireland there have been only 3 modern examples of mines opening since the 1960s, despite thousands of prospecting licences.
Diagram illustrating typical timelines for each stage of the mining cycle.
Does a company need permission to undertake mineral exploration?
Yes (from the State) and no (from landowners): A company must first apply for a prospecting licence, which requires a company to spend a minimum amount of money on prospecting, report formally on its activities on a regular basis and carry out its work in an environmentally responsible manner. If these conditions are satisfied, the licence will be granted by the state for a period of 6 years. Work allowed under a prospecting licence are non-intrusive activities including geological mapping, prospecting, stream sediment sampling, soil sampling and geophysics. This work can be done without landowners' permission in such a manner as not to interfere unnecessarily with the amenities of the locality. However the licensee is instructed upon the granting of the prospecting licence to, as far as may be practicable, discuss with the landowner their intentions including what work they want to carry out. The company is also liable under the Minerals Developments Act to pay compensation in any instances of nuisance caused to the landowner. Mineral prospecting poses little-none risk to the environment, as it is considered a non-intrusive practice, and so is exempt from the Planning and Development Act 2000.
Yes (State and landowners): Trenching cannot be conducted without written permission from the EMD of the Department for Communications, Climate Action & Environment (DCCAE). Trenching however, is not a common practice for mineral exploration in Ireland. It is considered an intrusive practice and so would need to be discussed with the landowner beforehand.
Yes (from State and landowners): the company must notify the EMD 2 weeks in advance of drilling, and obtain permission from the relevant landowner prior to any drilling work commencing. In Ireland, much of this is done by diamond drilling, an expensive method and so commonly consisting of a small number of well-placed holes.
Yes (State and landowners): A licensee must first obtain planning permission from the local authority (or, on appeal from An Bord Pleanála) and acquire an Integrated Pollution Control Licence from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (except for small-scale non-metal mine development). An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must accompany these applications to ensure all planning and environmental issues are fully considered. Additionally, mining cannot commence without a Mining Licence or Lease (if State-owned licence) from the Minister for DCCAE. There are opportunities in these processes for members of the public to have their views taken into account.
What safeguards are there for environment and SACs/SPAs?
Licensees are obliged to comply with guidelines for Good Exploration Practice in Mineral Exploration (see EMD website, publications section) which set out in detail the precautions required to avoid damage or pollution. All companies are notified of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) in their prospecting licence. The licensee is also notified of any restrictions to work in these areas, which may include things such as a stop to work at certain times during the year when certain fauna are migrating or in mating season. Prospecting is non-intrusive and so the simple existence of an SAC/SPA does not require a stop to early-stage exploration. To put into context the relative effects of exploration in an area, trenching – which is considered an intrusive method – consists of digging a shallow hole in the ground and is less-invasive than creating a drainage ditch. Unless done in a sensitive bog area, trenching could be compared to small-scale activities such as hedging, where if hedging was done in the wrong season, then it could have a very negative effect on wildlife habitat. Therefore, out of the two, trenching (the most intrusive of early exploration techniques) would be considered to have less of an effect than something as simple as hedging. No work can be carried out on or adjacent to a National Monument without prior approval.
Unlike historical mining, modern legislation in Ireland (90s onwards) forces any licencees wanting to apply for a mine to also have a full closure plan in place beforehand. In combination with the plan – which is thoroughly inspected by the EPA – they need to place sufficient money into a bond which is accessible by the State. This bond will grow or shrink in size as to fully cover the costs of closure and remediation. This means, if a company goes bankrupt, the bond will remain in place for the safe and environmentally responsible closure of the mine, including dealing with waste material and removal of buildings, infrastructure etc.
Put into context, there are 2 examples of mines which have gone through this full life cycle in the responsible, modern regime. Lisheen and Galmoy were opened, operated and closed over the past 30 years. Galmoy won an international environmental award for its closure and its former tailings facility is now a combination of some grassland for cattle grazing, and a constructed wetland. At this wildlife habitat, breeding density of curlews – which were designated in category Red (near threatened) – under International Union of Conservation of Nature in 2009 has increased dramatically. In addition to this, small numbers of sightings of Little Ringer Plovers have been observed here, and a nest with eggs recorded, an extremely rare occurrence in Ireland. Similarly, Lisheen is a shining example of how a post-mine site can provide substantial benefits: Funding has been gained for the development of a bioprocessing plant at the former Lisheen mine. This will focus on research in using solid biowastes from the farming and food industries to develop renewable products and energy. This is also predicted to create jobs and stimulate rural development, with Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys saying it will have huge benefits for Tipperary. The Irish bioeconomy would also play a crucial role in helping to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on fossil resources.
Does blasting take place during mineral exploration?
Blasting is the controlled use of explosives to displace volumes of rock for the development of mines and extraction of metal ores. There is absolutely no use of blasting at any part of the exploration process. This is a practice solely used in mining, where an engineer will plan a blasting programme, then use drilling rigs to create cylindrical holes in the rock to insert the explosive into these voids. The explosives will then be timed to go-off in a certain order for the controlled collapse of the desired volume of rock. The use of explosives will be covered in a detailed mine plan which is submitted prior to any blasting is conducted. This practice also occurs at aggregate quarries, and the procedure is set-out and checked under Regulation 46 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Quarries) Regulations, 2008.
Is cyanide used during mineral exploration?
Cyanide is used for the separation of gold from the rock in which it is naturally encased. It is a process that is used after the ore rock has been mined, and so has absolutely no use at any part of the exploration process. Any use of cyanide in a mine setup will be described in detail in the EIS prior to its use. Historical use of cyanide consisted of adding it to the heaps of ore rocks after their extraction, and being left to leach the gold in a liquid which would settle at the bottom and be collected. This, in addition to a plethora of now-banned activities have left historical mine sites such as Avoca and Silvermines as hazardous, toxic areas which can pose a threat to environment. Such sites undergo investigations by bodies such as the Geological Survey Ireland in efforts to bring about their remediation. However, modern use of cyanide in Ireland is within industrial facilities where it is removed from the waste material and detoxified in a safe facility where it cannot escape into the surrounding environment.
Here are a handful of examples of modern, safe, cyanide-incident-free gold mines throughout Europe and worldwide.
Sunrise Dam (Australia)
Serra Grande (Brazil)
Will mineral exploration leave any marks/effects upon my land?
Early mineral exploration under a Prospecting Licence may include geological mapping, prospecting, stream sediment sampling, soil sampling and geophysics. These are considered non-intrusive techniques and the geologist will ensure to make sure there are no permanent marks (aesthetic or safety-related) in the landowner's ground. In the instance of any damage to the landowner's property, the exploration company would be obliged to pay the necessary compensation. Trenching is considered an intrusive technique, and while its use in Ireland is rare, it must be agreed with the State and landowner prior to any trenching taking place. It involves digging a small hole in the ground to get to the rock underneath for examination, followed by refilling. Drilling is a late-stage exploration method and is considered intrusive, creating cylindrical holes in the ground of approximately 30cm in diameter. This must be agreed with the local authorities and the landowner prior to any work going ahead. However, this practice involves using the non-sampled, dug-up material surrounding the borehole to be backfilled in, to speed up the recovery of any soil/grass upon the hole and negate any safety issues for people and livestock.
A further list of answered questions is available on the Exploration and Mining Division's (EMD) website FAQs page