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Profile - Passionate about sustainability

By Robyn Grimsley

Colleen Cluett has a Master’s degree in ecology from the University of the Witwatersrand, and is a ‎director at environmental consultancy firm Cluett Consulting.

Colleen Wall webRobyn Grimsley (RG): Could you tell me about yourself and your background?

Colleen Cluett (CC): I have a Master’s degree in ecology from Wits University. Originally, my plan was to study microbiology and genetics as those were subjects that fascinated me in high school. However, in my first year, the life science course was divided between lectures from the School of Molecular and Cell Biology and the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences. Thank goodness it was! I became fascinated with the interwoven nature of our environment and its components. It felt like a giant spider’s web, where any strand that you pulled had repercussions for the other strands — repercussions that were often difficult to anticipate, or sometimes even imagine!

I was also inspired by the contribution of the natural environment to people’s livelihoods and well-being — something that is sometimes difficult to contemplate growing up in a city like Johannesburg. I think it also had a lot to do with the end of Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and a trip to Mozambique with my family. As such, I chose to specialise in environmental degradation, first through my honours in ecology, where I focused on assessing the success of rehabilitation at a limestone mine using a technique called landscape function analysis, and then through my Master’s degree, where I completed my dissertation based on research I conducted in the communal areas of Bushbuckridge. There I looked at differences and similarities between the perceptions of local resource users and the scientific paradigm when considering the use, degradation, and natural resources available in those communal lands.

RG: How did you become involved in this industry?

CC:I have only been involved in the industry for about 2.5 years. While I was completing my Master’s, and for a while afterwards, I worked for an environmental education organisation called the Organisation for Tropical Studies, based in Skukuza, first as a teaching assistant for their ecology and conservation course, and later as their communications and office manager. This position allowed me to explore my passion for teaching and for working with communities. It also allowed me to work in the fascinating environment of Skukuza, surrounded by amazing scientists and conservationists.

Then, in the middle of 2015, I started assisting my father, Alan Cluett, in his sole proprietorship. I really enjoyed working in the industry and learning about the further applications of environmental science. It was, and still is, a wonderful opportunity to work with and learn from my father, who has so much knowledge and experience in the industry that it can be difficult to comprehend! In February last year we formalised the arrangement and created a family business in which my brother Iain, a geographer and economist by training, and my mother Saskia, who works on the administrative side of the business, are also involved.

RG: You are involved with the environmental audits that Aspasa carries out for its members. What does this entail?

CC: The Aspasa About Face audits are carried out annually with all Aspasa members. The audit is a one-day audit of the environmental management system of a member’s operation, and the primary goal is to add value for the auditees.

The audit begins with an informal training session presented by Alan, which focuses on the importance of environmental management, especially in light of environmental legislation. We then split up and Alan does the site inspection while I do the paperwork audit. This division of labour has meant that both sides are becoming increasingly thorough and in-depth.

For the 2017 audits we upgraded the protocol to conform to the requirements of ISO 14001:2015. Because of this, much of the paperwork audit has focused on procedures. From 2018, we will bring in a lot more of the implementation of the system, which I am really looking forward to.

RG: What would you say are the most challenging and fulfilling aspects of your job?

CC: I’ll start with the most fulfilling aspects. As mentioned, Alan and I are currently contracted as the auditors for the Aspasa About Face programme. This is incredibly fulfilling, especially as a young person in the industry. As a result of the increasingly large and diverse Aspasa membership, we see a huge array of landscapes, operations, operating conditions, management styles, and people. Meeting the various people is one of my favourite parts of the audits — there are some incredibly inspiring people working in this industry!

I also really enjoy developing and facilitating training in the industry. I believe developing people’s environmental awareness is critical to encouraging environmental stewardship. It is also great to interact with people in a different way to how we do during audits.

Another very fulfilling aspect comes from having our own company. This means that we can build on our ideas and develop our passion projects relatively freely. At the moment, we are working on a capacity-building initiative and the opportunity to contribute further to this industry, to people’s development, and to the country has thrilled me.

In terms of the more challenging aspects, being on the road and away from home so much of the time can be a bit difficult. It can be difficult to properly take care of yourself in terms of wellness — diet and exercise and so on. It is also challenging to find time to do all the things that we want to do, we have an ever-expanding to-do list! Although, I believe this is a universal challenge and I enjoy all the things I am able to do and the opportunities to contribute.

RG: How has technology impacted your business, if at all?

CC: It really depends on the type of technology. In terms of our ability to conduct our work and especially the Aspasa About Face audits, it would be very different without our laptops and Excel packages!

In terms of emerging technologies, we are slightly slower on the uptake. We use our webpage to communicate industry-related information to society in general, and we are investigating the use of web-based or recorded lectures for a capacity-building project we are working on.

There are probably opportunities to utilise more technology, including using social media, but implementing this in a meaningful and reliable way is something we are taking our time on.

RG: What are some of the biggest challenges facing the quarrying and mining sectors regarding the environment?

CC: I think one of the biggest challenges is one that also faces society in general: a lack of awareness of the importance of a healthy environment. As a society, we are not aware of the true costs of our actions. This ranges from electricity generation, to incorrect disposal of waste (general and hazardous) and even to the use and disposal of single-use plastics (bottled water is one of my pet peeves).

As something that is deeply embedded in society in general, it is also something that is embedded in the mining and quarrying sectors. Then there are actions that stem from a lack of environmental awareness, such as inappropriate waste disposal, a lack of stormwater management and subsequent erosion (of topsoil and stockpiles), a lack of control of alien and invasive species, and a lack of energy conservation. There is also a lack of awareness regarding the scope and applicability of environmental law. However, we are seeing a tremendous shift away from these actions within the industry. A shift that is also filtering through to people’s lives outside of the workplace, at home or within their communities.

RG: As a woman working in a traditionally male-dominated industry, have you faced any particular challenges when it comes to dealing with the quarries and mines?

CC: This is difficult to answer because it is difficult to know if something that I experience is a true reflection of the situation or somebody else’s intentions, or simply a result of my interpretation of the situation. However, as a society, and particularly in South Africa, I believe we jump too readily to our preconceived notions of who someone is based on their obvious characteristics. I have definitely experienced people who do not really acknowledge my views or experience and who would ask Alan the exact same question after I have answered it and only trust the answer after he has given it, even though it is exactly the same. But I’m not sure if that has to do with my gender, my age, or simply Alan’s extensive experience. For the most part, however, people have been wonderfully kind, open and enthusiastic to receive any knowledge or information we have to share.

Being in this industry, especially as an auditor and trainer, has made me more aware of how I conduct myself. Especially, prefixing statements with “I think …” or “Perhaps …” or “Have you maybe considered …”. My statements and my place in a room is far more hesitant and reserved than some of the other people in that room, and I believe that some of that may be attributed to me being a woman and being brought up (by society more than specifically at home) to be more quiet and considered, and less assertive, in my interactions. This is something that I am attempting to change and it will be interesting to see how people respond to it then.

RG: Legal compliance is obviously a big issue. What are some of the laws or regulations that are the most difficult to implement/comply with?

CC: Environmental legislation is extensive, dynamic, and intricate and, again, many people are simply not aware of legislation, of how it all fits together and of what is required in terms of compliance. This is largely a result of the amount and complexity of environmental law, but people also appear to be too intimidated or simply too busy to tackle it appropriately. As such, there is also a lot of personal interpretation or just a lack of awareness of the requirements of the law. I think those are the biggest problems. In terms of actual compliance, the issues we identify most frequently are related to the granting of water use authorisations and also the submission and approval of environmental management plan (EMP) updates.

RG: Does the quarrying industry pay enough attention to environmental issues in terms of land rehabilitation and impact studies? Where are the shortcomings, and how can they be rectified?

CC: In general, management at operations wear so many hats and have so many responsibilities that environment, which they often do not feel comfortable with to begin with, is pushed to the backburner. There can also be an intimidating number of things to know or to understand, and acquiring that information can be very daunting. This can result in non-compliance with on-site requirements because people are not aware of them.

There are also many historical issues at operations. Past managers may not have properly collated documents and lost certain items. In these cases, it can be very difficult for managers now to find those documents — or even to know that they exist — and to make sense of all the paperwork. Also, where past management has neglected the requirements of the EMP or other environmental authorisations, this can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly for the present management.

Finally, a lack of familiarity with the impact studies, the EMP, and the requirements for environmental monitoring means that substandard work can be, and often is, submitted by contractors and consultants. This is a big problem in the industry, as substandard work that is prepared by consultants and submitted to the responsible authority on behalf of operations can result in non-compliance with the legal requirements.

RG: Can you give us insight into some of the worst-case and best-case scenarios you have been involved with?

CC: The worst cases for me are sights where there is a disconnect between the different role players, most noticeably between managers and their employees. You can see when the parties do not respect or trust each other and ultimately, nothing is done and systems fail.

On the other hand, there are some truly amazing teams out there, where all parts of the system have respect for and trust in each other, and they share a belief in and a vision of what they are working towards. Undeniably, this rests on the shoulders of the operational management. Where the manager is enthusiastic, engaging, respectful, stern but fair, and where they practice what they preach, the team really rallies and it is incredible to see.

RG: What steps do you need to follow for a successful rehabilitation of a quarry or surface mine? What should mine managers be aware of?

CC: It is important for people to consider the true purpose of the rehabilitation, and that is not simply to obtain a Closure Certificate from the DMR. Right from the start-up phase, the final land use for an operation should be considered and planned for. Surface mines present opportunities for society during the life of the mine — through the products they provide — as well as at the end of the life of the mine — through the landscape features they result in. Past surface mines have been transformed into shopping centres, business parks, reservoirs and landfills, among many other land uses, so having a vision of that end use is important, as is working towards that vision throughout the life of the mine.

Concurrent rehabilitation, as far as possible, is also critical. In life, we try to clean up as we go and that is something we should emulate in surface mining too. Concurrent rehabilitation allows for the land to start returning to a more natural/climax state more quickly, and also reduces the overall cost of rehabilitation (if it is done correctly the first time and maintained as required). It is also important to stay on top of the legislation on rehabilitation, especially regarding the financial provisions.

RG: What is the importance of environmental practices and rehabilitation in the efficient operation of quarrying companies?

CC: I wouldsay they are very important. In our work, we promote the integration of environment and health and safety into the business processes as much as possible. We believe that it should not be production first and then “those things that cost us money”, that is, environment as well as health and safety. We need to create an industry where management of our impact and environmental stewardship are second nature. This is not only to the benefit of current and future society but also, in terms of the current legislation, the price of doing something correctly the first time is far less than the costs of rehabilitating or cleaning something that was done wrong. And that excludes the costs that may arise if there are penalties imposed because of non-compliance with the law.

RG: What role should environmental management play in the operation of a surface mine or quarry? Should it be a priority in the overall strategy?

CC: Simply, yes! To truly optimise businesses, we need to see environmental management (and health and safety) as an integral part of our business. In this day and age, a business cannot function simply as an entity for profit. Businesses need to have core values, and to present and champion them. As an industry, we need to show that we value the needs of society, both present and future. A central tenet of this must be proper environmental stewardship and management.

In addition, as a result of the environmental legislation, the consequences of not prioritising environmental management can be huge and can result in not only the closure of an operation, but in the potential fining and/or imprisonment of the people involved at all levels of an organisation.

In terms of the financial incentive, if the environmental impacts of our actions are handled correctly and mitigated or minimised the first time, this will save huge costs down the line and may also help us to realise other business opportunities.

RG: How does management regard environmental management at the moment? What can be done to prioritise it in surface mine operations?

CC: Environmental management is incredibly varied. I have been to operations where the enthusiasm and ownership of the people who work there for their environmental management has taken my breath away and left me feeling so inspired. I have also been to operations where I have needed that prior inspiration to shield me from utter despondency. For the most part, however, I believe that when people know better, they do better. Education, and popularising environmental management, are critical for prioritising environmental management and environmental stewardship.

Top management involvement is also critical. If the people working at the operations have proactive, enthusiastic, and responsive leadership, the environmental management is generally greatly improved. To prioritise environmental management, I think developing the knowledge base within the industry when it comes to the principles of environmental management and environmental law, in a broad, easy-to-apply way, will help to develop understanding and to contribute to increasing the priority of environmental management. That knowledge can also serve as a base from which people can delve into the more complex aspects of environmental management without feeling overwhelmed.

RG: What are your views about current environmental legislation in South Africa?

CC: I believe that the current environmental legislation is so extensive and so punitive because it is difficult to get people’s attention when it comes to environmental management and environmental conservation any other way. I feel strongly about the importance of the Bill of Rights as contained in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, and section 24 in particular [“Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being and to have the environment protected through reasonable legislative measures.”] I wholeheartedly support any legislation that helps us to fully realise that right.

Again, a major problem is a lack of awareness and understanding of the environmental legislation — there is so much of it that people look at it and switch off, and there is a lack of clarity as to how exactly it is all implemented. But I am hopeful that with time and active participation between industry, supporting industries such as consultants, and government, we can work together to make sure that the legislation achieves its objectives.

RG: In terms of environmental issues, what would the ideal quarry of the future look like — while operating and after closure?

CC: Surface mining operations are amazingly varied, from the environment in which they operate to the team and the size, shape, and feel of the operation, so it is difficult to have one vision. However, I think the ideal quarry is one that has been properly planned so as to optimise the opportunities and minimise risks and adverse impacts. This has to do with things like stormwater management, and anticipating and preparing for the effects of dust and noise, especially on neighbours, and with considering the mining plan and how to optimise the site design to take advantage of it, with minimal use of resources such as diesel and equipment. Ultimately, what is needed is to consider the final land use from before the operation starts throughout the life of the operation, so that rehabilitation is properly prepared for and implemented, concurrently as far as possible.


 

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