The mining industry is increasingly interested in higher safety standards, but what happens in the case of a spill? This week, Mexico Mining Review spoke to Arturo Rodriguez, Assistant Attorney General for Industrial Inspection at PROFEPA to ask how environmentally-conscious miners are.
Q: How does PROFEPA address mining-related issues?
A: PROFEPA’s role is to oversee compliance with environmental regulations established by SEMARNAT. We have a policy for industrial monitoring that establishes criteria to select specific facilities for inspection. Even though we lack one specific to mining these criteria are applicable to it. Mining is a priority sector for us given the magnitude of its operations and the impact that an environmental accident could have. During Peña Nieto’s administration, PROFEPA visited all the legal mining operations in the country, which is around 1,150. This monitoring effort speaks to a supervising policy that allows us to acknowledge and register mine operations. This registry enables us to decide which operations we need to supervise more closely and on what matters because it is not our intention to review all the environmental obligations of a mine, but only those where we are more likely to find a lack of compliance. It would be impossible to supervise all mining operations in all aspects of their environmental obligations.
We have identified which are the most common environmental breaches. For example, an environmental impact resolution determines a limit to the area that can be affected by a mine operation. It is common that a mine has not been granted this resolution or it is encroaching on more terrain outside its scope without permission. This issue is often rooted in practical reasons, such as a tailings project that is slightly expanded without an update on the environmental permit. But in this case, as the tailings dam is broadened, so is the risk of its failure.
According to citizen surveys, the greatest worry regarding mining activities is related to water use. People often think that because miners use hazardous substances such as cyanide, they want to get rid of them. But more often miners actually want to get these chemical components back so they can reuse them. These are released accidentally, but not through daily operations. Most of the allegations we receive are on water contamination concerns, usually based on speculation and with no support from further research such as from COFEPRIS regarding cancer incidence in a mining area.
Q: What is your assessment of the main causes of environmental accidents in mine operations and how can these be addressed?
A: Only about 30 percent of companies are fully environmental compliant when inspected. Irregularities are divided into minor errors and those severe enough to merit closure. Environmental law in Mexico was enforced in 1988 and the environmental impact regulation in 1992. So, the main environmental obligations began on these dates, as the law is not retroactive. Current legislation demands a permit for all the subsequent operations. Many companies that operated projects before the law was established have not acquired the permits for their later expansions. Companies are not often aware of this need, but ignorance is no excuse for exemption from compliance. However, non-compliance is rarely due to a lack of knowledge of the law. Many companies rather chose to play clever as it is expensive for them to stop operations while obtaining permits. So, they continue operating, seeking to become compliant afterward. It is very typical in Mexico to ask for forgiveness instead of permission, so we have increased the rigor with which we apply the law and have implemented stricter sanctions for non-compliance.
Day-to-day decisions are often made at low levels of the hierarchical structure. Production managers, usually pressed to deliver certain results to investors and shareholders, choose to violate environmental regulations. This is what happened at Buenavista del Cobre in Sonora. The environmental recommendation said the leaching basins should not operate until the emergency ones were functional, but management chose to take the risk. I believe environmental matters should be decided higher in the company hierarchy, such as is done in the other industries.
PROFEPA has strived during the last few years to be transparent with the information it provides. Whether there is a problem or not, we clearly communicate this to the public. Environmental inspection ultimately tries to send a message of zero tolerance in regulatory non-compliance and to create awareness of the economic consequences derived from failing to follow norms.
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