IRMA: Protecting Water Resources from the Effects of Industrial-Scale Mining for Metals and Minerals

Although contemporary societies rely heavily on mined resources to produce a broad range of manufactured goods and many individuals rely upon mining as a source of economic opportunity, the mining of minerals and metals carries with it the potential to cause considerable harm to the natural environment and nearby communities. In response to this problem, various stakeholders in the supply chain for metals and minerals—including mining companies, jewelry retailers, NGOs and various trade associations— created the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (“IRMA”). These stakeholders envision a “world in which the mining industry respects human rights and the aspirations of affected communities; provides safe, healthy and respectful workplaces; avoids or minimizes harm to the environment; and leaves positive legacies.”

A Comprehensive Model of International Best Practices

In pursuit of this vision, IRMA extensively reviewed and evaluated several existing models of international best practices and created one comprehensive set of principles applicable to industrial-scale mining of metals and minerals. On July 22, 2014, IRMA released its initial Draft Standard for Responsible Mining. The IRMA Standard considers a wide range of environmental and social concerns, establishes an independent third-party verification program, and provides support tools to facilitate compliance with the IRMA certification program.

In addition to numerous other environmental impacts, metal and mineral mining operations can significantly affect regional water sources. Therefore, the IRMA Standard establishes protections for water resources within Chapter 3, which contemplates environmental responsibility, and Chapter 4, which addresses mine closure and reclamation projects.

Water Quality

Chapter 3.1 of the IRMA Standard considers water quality. The purpose of this chapter is to minimize pollution from mine sites to ground and surface water. The seepage of mine water can result in significant water pollution and can be extremely costly to mitigate. IRMA therefore requires that mine operators actively monitor the quality of surface and groundwater resources. To comply with the IRMA standard, mine operators must evaluate water quality at a number of trigger and compliance sampling points, including points of mine water discharge, the facility boundary, and mixing zones. This water quality data must be compared to baseline data collected at least every two years from these locations. IRMA also requires operators to monitor contaminants contained within storm-water discharges.

The IRMA Standard will provide numerical standards for each contaminant, so that mine operator compliance can be evaluated. However, governmentally protected waters and high-quality waters, where “most contaminants do not exceed IRMA water quality criteria” as a result of prior human activities, may not be degraded above the pre-existing baseline water quality.

Water Quantity

Chapter 3.2 of the IRMA Standard speaks to water quantity. Mines often use a great deal of water and may critically deplete water resources, especially in arid regions where water is already scarce. Mine dewatering may also deplete water resources in humid areas where mine operators must divert water in order to develop the mine. The purpose of this chapter is to ensure that mining projects minimize consumptive water use, prevent dewatering impacts, and leave enough water in streams to maintain environmental flows.

The IRMA Standard requires mine operators to establish minimum in-stream flows to support sites affected by mining projects and protect aquatic organisms. IRMA also requires that groundwater pumping not create a significant deficit within local aquifers or affect nearby streams for thirty days. Further, if discharging or disposing of de-watering water, the mine operator must: use it as production water, use it to replace water to local water users, or return it to the aquifer or basin from which it was removed.

Mine Waste Management

Chapter 3.3 considers mine waste management and seeks to eliminate offsite contamination and ensure that mine facilities are left in a condition creating the least risk to the environment and future land uses. Modeling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory Program, IRMA requires annual reporting of toxic chemicals—such as metals, cyanide, and nitrogen compounds—generated or released as a result of mining operations.

The IRMA Standard prohibits the disposal of mine waste into rivers and streams, requires tailings facilities to be lined with materials minimizing seepage of contaminants into the environment, and requires tailings dams designed to withstand Maximum Credible Earthquakes (“MCE”) and Probable Maximum Precipitation (“PMP”) events. The MCE, calculated based upon seismological and geologic data, represents the largest earthquake that could reasonably be generated by a particular seismic source. PMP is the greatest theoretical depth of precipitation possible over a certain time period, in a given area, and at a particular time of year.

Mine Closure and Reclamation

Chapter 4.1 addresses mine closure and reclamation. The goals of this section are to ensure that mine operators analyze and address the long-term environmental and social implications of a mining project and ensure that mine closure and reclamation costs are borne by the mine’s beneficiaries and not the public. IRMA requires mine operators to develop a mine closure and reclamation plan “compatible with the protection of human health and the environment, and other beneficial uses.” If the mineral exploration phase has the potential to inflict significant damage, IRMA extends reclamation requirements to pre-mining mineral exploration as well. Reclamation plans must include, among other things, backfilling of open pits, salvage and replacement of topsoil, stormwater management, re-vegetation of affected lands, and water treatment plans. Where impacts to wetlands cannot be avoided, reclamation plans must also provide for wetlands to be replaced.

Chapter 4.1 also outlines requirements for financial surety and establishing communications with local communities. Mine operators must provide financial surety to support reclamation projects in the event that they do not complete reclamation. Financial surety instruments must be “independently guaranteed, reliable, and readily liquid.” Self-bonding and corporate guarantees are not deemed sufficient for the purposes of IRMA. Further, mine operators must have surety instruments reviewed by an independent third-party. Mine operators must make their reclamation plans and independent surety reviews available to the public. The reclamation plan and surety reviews are subject to public review and a thirty-day comment period. The reclamation project is subject to another thirty-day public comment period, “prior to release of part or all of the financial surety,” to address the adequacy and completion of the project.

Improving Social and Environmental Performance

It is IRMA’s mission “to establish a multi-stakeholder and independently verified responsible mining assurance system that improves social and environmental performance.” Through its mining and reclamation guidelines, IRMA hopes to limit the geographic and temporal scope of metal and mineral mining impacts.   Operator compliance with these guidelines can mitigate harm to local communities and the resources they depend upon. It may also form the basis for improved relationships between mine operators and local communities.

IRMA covers a broad range of social and environmental issues related to the mining of metals and minerals and provides a well-founded comprehensive set of guidelines to promote compliance with internationally recognized best practices. The comment period for the first draft of IRMA’s Standard for Responsible Mining closed on October 22, 2014. After conducting field-testing, IRMA plans to release a second draft of its Standard for Responsible Mining in early 2015, after which it will open a second comment period.


The title image features the Antamina Tailings pond at the Antamina Mine in Peru. This is just one example of how waste water and surface water mix. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic license and the owner does not endorse this blog.


Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, Standard for Responsible Mining, Draft v1.0 (July 2014),

Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, (last visited Oct. 25, 2014).

Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, Earthworks, (last visited Oct. 25, 2014).

IRMA Webinar: Protecting Water Resources, Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, (follow “Protecting Water Resources” hyperlink).