why mining companies need to get ESG right

Man camps like this one pose a safety threat to…

2023OCT11 Black Gold Express facility housing 1

Historically, mining companies have struggled to form positive, respectful relationships with indigenous and native populations in the areas where they mine. From Rio Tinto destroying a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site, to Fortescue mining Yindjibarndi lands without full permission from cultural leaders, the relationship between mining companies and native peoples has been fraught at best. Yet environmental, social and governance (ESG) has climbed the mining agenda, and companies increasingly recognise they need a social licence to operate.

Governments in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the UK and US are actively promoting ESG practices in critical minerals mining, pushing companies towards sustainability and net-zero emissions. Corporates including Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue are taking action to decarbonise the sector.

One Native Alaska village has borne witness to the damage, both direct and indirect, that mining companies can do when they do not follow ESG best practice. When Kinross, a Canadian gold and silver miner, moved to proceed with gold mining at the Manh Choh project, which began preparation work in 2022, residents of the nearby native village of Dot Lake quickly saw an impact. A 600-capacity ‘man camp’ was created just south of Dot Lake, and negative environmental and socio-economic impacts followed.

The nearby native community of Tetlin has signed an agreement with Kinross to allow mining operations on or near its land, but other native communities also remain uneasy about potential damage. For Dot Lake’s tribal leaders, including the granddaughter of Dot Lake’s founder and current village president Tracy Charles-Smith, protecting the culture and heritage of the tribe’s almost 200 members is crucial.

Over Zoom, Charles-Smith, vice-president Chance Shank, village programme manager Alan Faulkner and communications assistant Kelli Reep discuss how the community has gone about protecting its tribe and lands, the challenge posed by mining operations and what a way forward might look like.

What was your first response to the arrival of mining operations in the area?

Charles-Smith: We became aware around February of last year that there was no meaningful information about [the impact of] man camps, and so we started doing our own research. We reached out to other tribes in the US who have had these man camps and mining extractive industries near their communities, and they sounded the alarm – “violence is going to increase by 70% near your community” – so I became very alarmed.

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We reached out and started a campaign. We did our homework – we got all the studies from Harvard, Boulder University, UCLA, etc – and as we dug deeper, we sent out a letter asking tribes in the US to please support our efforts against these man camps. We ended up having amazing opportunities to learn from the lower 48 tribes who have already experienced this. We were able to participate in some of their training for missing and murdered indigenous people and gained some [knowledge] tools [to protect ourselves].

While we were doing this, I sat on the [US] Department of Transportation’s Technical Advisory Committee and I learned of highway safety issues with B-trains [‘ore haulers’ that are truck-trailer combinations]. I asked the Kinross representative about their safety plans for hazard mitigation: what are your safety plans if this toxic truck full of ore crashes and spills? What are your safety plans and policies for the man camps? I was told that they are a private mining company and they don’t have to share anything with us.

We did major outreach and testified before the [US] Department of Justice with our concerns. We went before the Alaska Federation of Natives with two resolutions about the environment and the man camps. Chance [Shank, Dot Lake vice-president] and other council members also went to New Orleans before the National Congress of American Indians and got our resolutions passed.

What are some of the most noticeable impacts of this mining operation moving in?

Faulkner: The biggest issues are the socio-economic impacts. The man camp is based in Tok, which is 47 miles south of the village. That is where everyone goes to get their groceries, gasoline, mail; that is where the native clinic is located. A roll of aluminium foil at the grocery store is around $23 a roll. When you add 600 people to a small community – Tok normally has around 1,200 inhabitants – then the grocery store shelves are empty and there are problems with services to the village like fuel delivery. Basically, they [the village council] got a letter in the mail saying: ‘Well, y’all now play second fiddle because we are now servicing Kinross. If you want to find someone else to deliver your fuel, hey, that’s great, but you are not our top priority anymore.’

It is things like that, in addition to environmental issues, that are problematic. You have the [US] EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] with the report about the particles coming off the tyres and we are adding these 96ft-long, 82-tonne ore haulers onto the public highway system. They create an immediate danger for anybody and everybody on that road because Alaska roads suck. They are awful.

In addition, the ore haulers are hauling ore that is highly acidic. It is going to end up in the village and the water and in people’s homes. We got a bunch of air filters and distributed them in the village. We have a baseline audiology study on the noise generated by the traffic; those B trains are ginormous. The village has a ridge right behind it, and it reverberates right back into the village. We are talking 24/7, with these huge trucks coming through every 15 minutes.

Shank: My concern is that they [Kinross] have not [yet] unleashed the full scale of this trucking [and] they have already got backlash at every meeting; no one likes this transportation route. The Kinney engineering [local engineering and safety consultancy] report suggests there are going to be ten crashes a year because of this. One of the main concerns with trucking is in the winter, when it snows and it is kind of powdery. The plows don’t really come out and plow that – they will only plow really hard snowfall – but when there is maybe two inches of powder, that is really dangerous. Trucks will kick up that powder snow and will throw it backwards. So when you are driving past you basically have to drive through this invisible cloud with no sight for 15 seconds. I see the potential for a crash.

The cultural ceremony that I can see being interrupted from this transportation route is that when one of the people in the village passes away, we do a caravan of about ten vehicles driving within the village. We don’t go fast, but with these trucks going back and forth, I don’t see how we can continue doing that safely. What if that causes another crash?

Are you concerned about the risk of contamination of local tribal lands used for food?

Shank: The Tetlin Goldmine is about ten miles down the highway from Tok, and then another 15 miles from the highway down a dirt road to the [Tetlin] village. The road goes up the hill to the site where there is lots of gold – there is two open pit mines. There, they are using strong chemicals to get the ore and process it. There is arsenic, sulphates, oxides, magnesium. These chemicals have very long half-lives. The number one concern with hard rock mining is water contamination. People tap into underground groundwater flows, which connect to the nearby Tok River and the lake, for their wells. They rely on white fish in the village, and they harvest a lot, especially during their culture camp [local cultural event promoting traditional tribal heritage, crafts, food and skills] – but those chemicals with super long half-lives are getting a direct route [in]to those [water] sources.

My other concern is the transport of the ore. It has all those chemicals in it. They put toppers [covers] on top that will supposedly contain the dust particles, but in other studies like at the Red Dog mine [a large zinc and lead mine in remote Alaska], even with toppers, they see particle tests with those chemicals getting out in a fine dust form and that is along 240 miles of the transportation route.

What does a possible way forward look like for you? What would you like to see happen?

Charles-Smith: I would like an EIS, an environmental impact study. I would like to know what the plans are to protect our water, our food sources and our people. I want our food, water, environment, safe. I want our women safe and I want our people safe on the road they have to travel on. The state of Alaska may want to sacrifice ten more people, but I think they are underestimating the full impacts of this [kind of operation].

Shank: We had two National Congress of American Indians resolutions. One was about an enforceable community safety plan. Whenever there is a new man camp, there should be an enforceable safety plan for our local people, where the man camp can be held accountable. The other resolution called for an EIS for any mining venture near native tribes. If there had been an EIS, Dot Lake Village could have been a cooperating agency and we would have as much pull as Tetlin does. Tetlin is not utilising their pull over this mine. I feel like they feel pressured to favour the mine, but Dot Lake could hold their feet to the fire. And get answers for the questions we have asked the Transportation Advisory Committee. They would have to share information with us and we could get things done. We have been robbed of that opportunity and so have other tribes.

Kinross were approached for comment but have not responded at time of publication.

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