Mine it once and mine it well

David Laurence is on a mission to quench the global thirst for sustainable mining education.

David Laurence, Honorary Associate Professor at the Australian Centre for Sustainable Mining Practices (ACSMP) and the School of Mining Engineering at UNSW, has enjoyed a career in the industry spanning four decades. He was arguably the first Australian mining engineer to give a paper on environmental management in mining in the early 80s and was thus considered rather an “oddball” by his peers. These, don’t forget, were the heady days of the industry when the dominant philosophy was to, “go forth, go bush, develop Australia and produce wealth!”. His environmental concerns, however, proved rather farsighted and naturally led him, in 2009, to become the inaugural director of the ACSMP, which leads the world in sustainable mining education and research.

In 2012, David’s life changed considerably when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He had to give up his role as Director of the Centre to reduce his workload, but has taken the advice of his doctors to keep active by promoting UNSW and sustainable mining practices in a global context. We caught up with him to find out more about his role.

What does your role involve?

My role is one of guidance. I still have some students I supervise, I still do some lecturing, and I still keep my hand dipped in the research activity; but most of the time I’m a roaming ambassador for the Centre and the School.

A roaming ambassador, what’s that?

I work under the bigger umbrella of capacity building, which is about building strength in the world’s mining schools, in particular at universities throughout the developing world. The reason for this is that future world-class mineral deposits, and therefore mines, won’t be in the UK or the USA, or in Australia even; they’ll be in the developing world. Developing countries are therefore looking to countries like Australia for education because we are considered to be international “experts” in the mining space and particularly the sustainable development side of the industry.

Associate Professor David Laurence

How has mining as an industry reacted to concerns about sustainability?

I think it’s changed pretty dramatically. When I first started as a young graduate, the industry wasn’t focused on sustainability and that’s all changed. The model that we use in the Centre is the “triple bottom line” i.e. looking at the environmental, economic and community aspects of development, but we also have a couple more. One is safety and health, particularly the employees; and the second is resource efficiency, where we encourage companies to protect, nurture and mine the resource appropriately. This could be summed up as: ‘Mine it well and mine it once.’

How do you feel your ideas are received when you give your presentations overseas?

There’s a huge thirst for knowledge and ‘Brand Australia’ is well-respected out there. I assist organisations like Austrade who are hungry for strong practical advice about sustainable development backed up by case studies. The Centre was involved in the authorship of a series of booklets called Leading Practice Sustainable Development Program for the Mining Industry, and we take them overseas where they’re very well received.

Could you give an example of how sustainable mining practices have really improved a project or a mine?

Before I joined the University, when I was the general manager of a mining company, we mined some wonderful, fertile, agricultural land on a number of farms in the New England region of New South Wales. When we finished we succeeded in rehabilitating those farms back to agricultural use. In fact, their productivity improved. The project succeeded because we built a great relationship with the local community and local farmers, and went that extra mile to make sure environmental management safeguards were in place. In the end we extracted the resource, the government received their revenue from taxes and royalties, people had jobs, and when it was all over, the farmer could keep on farming.

What led you to pursue sustainability in mining?

I stepped back and tried to put myself in other people’s shoes. In engineering we’re taught to be technically excellent. We know how to mine, we know the technology and we know how to do it at minimum financial cost. But in many cases we don’t stop to consider the bigger picture and other costs paid by the environment and community.

My thinking was fine-tuned into this bigger picture view while working as the Government’s Chief Mining Engineer in the Northern Territory at Ranger, the uranium mine. There were considerable community engagement issues and we were working within incredibly sensitive ecosystems.

What does a modern day mining engineer look like?

The mining engineer today has a more rounded appreciation of where mining fits into society. There’s a lot more non-technical content in the curriculum and mining engineers are taught how to be good corporate citizens within the community. It’s no longer a given that people will readily accept mining. Now society needs reassurance that the benefits are going to exceed the costs.

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