Today, almost half of the world's workers — 1.5 billion people — work in water related sectors, and nearly all jobs depend on water and those who ensure its safe delivery, according to UN Water, the entity that coordinates the UN’s work on water and sanitation. This is certainly true of Barrick where hundreds of people are employed to ensure the company manages water responsibly.
These individuals encompass a wide range of disciplines such as hydrology, environmental engineering, water treatment, environmental law and climatology, to name just a few. They help keep Barrick’s mines operating sustainably and ensure the company complies with stringent water permits, laws and regulations in Barrick’s host jurisdictions.
"We recognize that water is a shared, vital and, in many places, scarce resource," says Patrick Malone, Vice President of Environment at Barrick. "We strive to use only what we need and minimize our impact on other water uses. We also work closely with our host countries and communities to ensure transparency and always look for opportunities to improve access to water."
Water is used throughout the mining cycle, from exploration to production through to closure. However, before a mining company can begin using water resources, it must obtain permits from local regulatory authorities.
Barrick’s permitting specialists and environmental lawyers identify which permits are required and gather the information needed to obtain those permits. In the exploration phase, for example, Barrick’s water specialists must identify the source and volume of water that will be used while drilling to collect rock samples. Applying for and obtaining these permits can take anywhere from three to 12 months, depending on the jurisdiction.
Before building a mine, Barrick must prepare a detailed environmental impact assessment that indicates the amount of water the planned mine will use, why the water is needed, the potential impact on aquifers or surface waterways and how the company will mitigate those impacts.
The people who gather this data include site hydrologists and engineers, as well as a dedicated team of in-house water specialists such as Dr. Johnny Zhan, a hydrology and hydrogeology expert; Dr. Mei Shelp, a hydrology and air science expert; and Claudio Andrade, an environmental chemistry expert, who advise our sites across the world.
Preparing and obtaining regulatory approval for an environmental impact assessment can take up to five years, but the role of water specialists doesn’t end there.
On a mine site, water must meet different quality requirements for different activities such as processing, dust suppression, potable water use and water discharge. This ensures compliance with permits, the safety and health of our people and helps mine operators optimize water use.
Depending on the time of year, climate conditions and the presence of groundwater at a mine site, a mine operator may need to remove water to ensure safe access to an open pit or underground mine area. A permit is required for this activity, along with detailed information about how this "dewatering" process will be conducted and its potential impacts to local and regional groundwater systems
"The majority of the ore bodies at our operations are located below the original water table, so dewatering and water management programs are necessary," says Johnny Zhan, Senior Manager, Hydrology. "These programs, the accompanying monitoring networks and analysis frameworks have improved over time as we learn more about how water interacts with our mines and the environment."
If water chemistry changes after coming into contact with mine materials, Barrick must manage the water in accordance with permitting and regulatory requirements before discharging it off site or reusing it. The company treats this water at on-site water treatment plants overseen by teams of engineers.
All Barrick mines have mandatory water monitoring stations to keep track of water entering and leaving its mines. This ensures that water quality is maintained in local waterways.
Barrick’s environmental specialists share all monitoring data with appropriate local authorities and other stakeholders and the mine’s water treatment facilities are inspected regularly by local authorities. To increase transparency, Barrick has instituted community water monitoring programs at some sites.
Water management is as crucial and important to Barrick after a mine closes as it is during the mine’s active lifecycle. Water treatment and environmental monitoring continue after closure — sometimes for decades.
Barrick’s environmental specialists also remediate and re-vegetate land at closed sites returning it to a stable state to control erosion. Re-vegetation, which often begins well before a mine ceases operations, increases biodiversity and plant life, helping return the environment to a pre-mining ecosystem. Where possible, water is also removed from tailings facilities, which are continuously monitored and inspected by independent tailings experts to ensure structural integrity.
"Water is, increasingly, ranked among the top issues of concern for our stakeholders," Malone said. "We agree and that is why we have experts in water management across our operations whose top priority is to ensure we manage this precious resource responsibly."