The mining industry is big business for Australia, but does it come at the expense of our environment? Caitlin Ganter spoke to environmental scientist Sarah Poynton about achieving a fine balance.
It’s no secret that mining is big business in Australia. The country’s vast mineral reserves contribute more than $121 billion a year to our economy, and have the biggest profit margin of any Australian industry. It’s also an area with more than its fair share of controversy – with battles against mining projects being fought across the country.
One environmental scientist who feels she can have a positive impact from inside the industry - while still allowing Australia to profit from the boom - is 28-year old Sarah Poynton.
“It was at university that I first learnt about the impacts of mining and legacy mines, and I knew that environmental science was for me,” she said.
“I am not an environmental activist, but I do believe that by working in the industry I can bring about more positive changes to operations and attitudes with regards to the environmental impact of mining.”
Sarah is an environmental science graduate from ACU’s North Sydney Campus, and the Environmental Coordinator for Coal & Allied’s Hunter Valley Operations. Coal & Allied is owned by mining giant Rio Tinto, which has operations in finding, mining and processing mineral resources around the world.
“My role is really diverse and generally includes dealing with the community, government regulators, management of site rehabilitation, water management, coordination of environmental audits, and implementing site environmental control projects that target issues of community sensitivity and impact.”
Sarah is the first point of contact on site for environmental incidents and helps train site employees in environmental issues. She also develops and implements programs to improve the environmental footprint and ensures the site is compliant with Coal & Allied’s Environmental Protection Licence.
“A challenging aspect of my role can be managing some of the impacts mining can have,” she said. “However, this offers an opportunity for us to work with local communities and identify ways we can improve our operations.
“We do work closely with the community and I coordinate and run Community Consultative Committee meetings three times a year or more. I also identify and assist with facilitation of environmental control projects targeting issues of specific community sensitivity and impact.”
Despite the challenges of the role, Sarah said getting into the graduate program was a huge boost, and it was rewarding to see tangible evidence of your work.
“It’s great working closely with the mining and mine planning teams to ensure we are minimising our impact on neighbouring lands and communities,” she said. “The people I work with are genuinely committed to reducing our environmental footprint, and it gives me great satisfaction to see site teams increase their environmental awareness, understand the issues and alter operations if required.”