Cerro Matoso Nickel Mine, Colombia
The Cerro Matoso operations of BHP Billiton Stainless Steel Materials were reviewed from the perspective of the systematic sustainability framework of the Natural Step. It was not an ‘audit’ in the strict sense, as information was provided in an open way and accepted in good faith. However this engagement, conducted in 2003 by recognised global expert in sustainable resource processing and Director of The Natural Step Australia, Dr. Joe Herbertson, mapped progress made to date and explored new opportunities for innovation motivated by the goal of sustainability.
The story of sustainable development at Cerro Matoso is about creating value and building a legacy to be proud of. It is an excellent case study of business success linked to engagement with the community.
Cerro Matoso is a world class ferro-nickel business operating in Colombia under very challenging social and political conditions. Business leadership, in addition to security of their people and infrastructure assets, is founded on pro-active and effective social programs and a genuine commitment to sustainable development in the region. The fundamental approach is to build capability not dependence. Regional health, education and job creation projects are having a restorative effect in the community. They are designed to assist disadvantaged people, those displaced by the armed conflict and drug trade, the rural poor and the unskilled. They have a positive, indirect effect on security, corruption and social inequity in the region.
The management philosophy is anchored in a systems approach to continuous improvement with an inclusive, people oriented culture. A focus on business success is complemented by humanitarian values.
Cerro Matoso is taking a systematic approach to water management, land care and rehabilitation. These are seen as sustainable practices, provided rehabilitation plans continue to be effective. This should be tested at the end of mine life, and in the interim, by measuring the return of species and bio-diversity to rehabilitated areas.
A core sustainability challenge for Cerro Matoso is related to its use of fossil fuels. The kiln-EAF process is very energy and Greenhouse Gas intensive, particularly since a high proportion of the processed material is discarded as slag. Energy conservation and Greenhouse management plans are in place and these will be reinforced by persistent improvements to the process and new developments to increase nickel feed grades and recoveries. Incremental advances alone cannot, however, deliver a ‘sustainable’ outcome that is Greenhouse neutral. A fundamental, whole system approach, that links the sustainability of the operations with the strategy of regional sustainable development, should be explored at least at the conceptual level. Unlocking the full value of the slag is an enormous challenge that may present the innovative opportunity for moving towards the aspirational goal of zero waste and emissions.
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