Barriers to Embracing New Technologies

This article is the second in a series, based on sessions of the Mines and Technology conference held in Toronto, October 2-4, 2017. The first article was titled, "The Future of Tailings Management", where I suggested that we need to become more proactive in looking for ways that we can reduce waste-associated risks posed to our business, reduce the risks of said wastes, AND recover value from the mass of these "waste" materials we produce every day. 

To challenge these topics, a panel was held on the topic of tailings waste management, where panelists included Doug Morrison, CEO and President of the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI), Ivar Fossum, CEO of Nordic Mining, and Charles Dumaresq, VP Science and Environmental Management of the Mining Association of Canada (MAC). The panel moderator was myself - Karen Chovan, Founder and Principal of Enviro Integration Strategies.

The following sections incorporate a summary of thoughts framing the dialogue and questions, as well as quoted answers from the panelists. Where there are words bounded by [square brackets], I have added my own comments or points of clarity, based on preceding or post-held conversations. And to be clear, this article covers only the opening points and the first primary focus area of the panel. Due to the session length, further focus areas will be documented in followup posts.

So, let's dive in...

Key Points Framing the Dialogue

Here are a few key issues that were raised, and sometimes covered, in the preceding days and hours of the panel, to help frame the dialogue.

The first point was around maintaining a holistic view of our systems, in order to make decisions. I was happy to see that this is happening more and more, with efforts to push data back to the employees, so that they can make decisions on the spot, to improve performance.

However, I was concerned that I had yet to hear the mention of those integrated systems containing any data relevant to tailings - in all this automation and data integration, the highlights have been distinctly related only to exploration, and optimizing or improving the safety of operations underground, at the face, or in the mill.

The challenge is, that every decision made with respect to material selection, movements or segregation, processing tweaks for recovery, and even pipeline transport - all can have an impact on the volumes, and geochemical or geotechnical characteristics of tailings or wasterock. 

I believe we need to be linking those particular decisions to their potential impacts on tailings as well. 

The second thing I reiterated was a point made by Nathan Stubina, Managing Director Innovation, McEwen Mining. He noted that there is a spectrum of innovation and improvements, and that most of the efforts we’ve been making are within the continuous improvement realm.

If we really want more rapid change, we should be including some transformational game changers. And that, when we consider new strategies and technologies, we must get away from assessing them simply based on NPV evaluations. As he suggested,

"We are having the wrong conversation" - Nathan Stubina, McEwen Mining

The game-changing point was echoed by Doug Morrison when he suggested, via his earlier presentations, that we should be going straight to solutions that eliminate a problem, as opposed to continuous improvements or band-aids on processes that are nowhere near effective, nor efficient! 

If we are fixing the wrong things, we will get nowhere. We need to be reviewing the data and strategies we apply, to look for the step change opportunities for waste management.

The third highlight I wanted to make, was a question posed by Michelle Ash, CIO, Barrick Gold. She closed her fireside chat with Andrew Cheatle, Executive Director, PDAC, with the thought:

"What do we have that we are not using?" - Michelle Ash, Barrick Gold

In answer to this question, I’d like to suggest that tailings and mine waste are some of those things, along with the many piloted and researched technologies that have been developed to extract value from them, as Doug highlighted.

With such high volumes of materials that we have at our fingertips, that we've already sunk costs into breaking down, we should be assessing what other value may be present before us. 

Value, perhaps not in our eyes, but in the eyes of other commodity processors, in the eyes of potentially new clientele, and in the broader distribution network. 

Embracing New Technologies

A little reflection on earlier comments made by Doug and Charles leads us into this first focus. 

In his presentation on tailings technologies, Doug suggested that the risk aversion of operating companies is a barrier to piloting technologies that might allow recovery of secondary, and even tertiary, metals and minerals from tailings wastes.

He has found that the general stance is that operators want to avoid activities that might have any sort of impact on their performance against licensed permits, which is of course, understandable if the performance were to decline, but that is not the intent of applying new technologies.

Alongside of this, we are encouraging improved performance and the application of best available practices, and best available technologies through the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining program, as highlighted by Charles.

Some might say, in some sense, this would discourage companies even more from trying out new technologies that they are unfamiliar with.

The question:

How can we move forward to embrace new technologies, and the piloting of the many technologies that Doug mentioned are already available, which can both recover value from, and reduce the risks of tailings management?

DM: You have to find opportunities to work on the tails and do something different without actually diminishing your compliance with the regulations. More and more, particularly in larger organizations, all those decisions are pushed further and further up the value chain, and eventually it sits at the desk of the corporate lawyer. He [or she!] doesn’t even start to know anything about the technology…doesn’t know, doesn’t care, he just sees an elevated level of risk and he’ll close that down. 

You actually have a rare opportunity with the smaller operations who are much keener to take, your [Ivar’s] corporation such as Nordic, for example, who will be quite interested in doing something different, because you actually have the decision-making capability. 

That takes us next to smaller sites, where there is either little or no control [i.e., of existing discharges at abandoned sites], and that gives us completely free hand, so long as we can assure the regulating authorities that we’re not creating liabilities. And in the environmental space, anybody who takes any action, who introduces any new activity into the tailings facility, has to demonstrate to the regulators that they are not creating more environmental damage or more have to demonstrate to them that you [will not, and] did not do that.  

For some sites, that gives us a problem. In the more remote sites, you cannot meet the regulated requirements for sampling and analyzing samples of water leachate, for example, because you have to do that within 48 hours. At remote sites, you cannot actually get the samples, get them to a lab, get them tested, and meet that regulatory constraint. 

So we focus on the types of technologies that will enable us to handle those things, so that we can apply new technologies to old sites, and demonstrate the efficacy of new and better solutions for the problem. Once you’ve demonstrated that it’s a known proven technique, that can then come back to a normal operation, and be accepted as a credited approach to dealing with tailings, but you can’t do the trials easily on an existing, operating site. 

KC: So, we’re back to prove it first, and…

DM: That’s always going to be the case, and we can sit around and complain how tough that is, or we can just settle down and do something about that. 

CD: I think that does, in part, point back to the absolute essential need for a much more holistic planning process up front with really strong consideration of designing for closure.

So, if you’re thinking of how to minimize that long term liability, and unfortunately the way that accounting works, and I’m a geologist - I don’t understand this black magic with discount rates and things like that, but that can make a big difference in what that price tag is when you’re going to build the thing in the first place.

But it’s a real price tag at the end of the lifecycle if you then have to monitor and manage and maintain for 100-200 years, because of a decision that you made to save what looked like a relatively small amount of money because of the discount rate that you were applying. 

I think there’s another opportunity and that’s with mine life extensions, and we're seeing companies that do have old tailings facilities, that are changing how they are doing.

Like Musselwhite Mine, a GoldCorp site in northern Ontario, where they started out as a very conventional slurry facility, and they are moving away from that so that they can extend the life of their mine without building another large tailings facility.

Moving outside of Canada, but with Lundin Mining, who is another MAC member, with the Neves-Corvo site in southern Portugal. They’ve done something very similar there, where they have water issues in terms of water availability there because it's in a very arid environment, they completely changed midstream, how they were managing their tailings because it made sense to do so. To move away from a conventional slurry with a water cover, which is really hard to maintain in an arid environment, and move to something completely different in the same footprint, in the same facility. 

So there are companies that are willing to take that risk and think outside of that box, and move away. Partly to be able to extend the life of their facilities, partly to address regulatory concerns, partly to address other concerns outside of the regulatory, like water availability like at the Neves-Corvo site. But there are interesting things happening even with sites that have been around for a long time.

If we look at the shift at Vale, at Copper Cliff, with starting to have a separation high-sulphide float, and managing that separately, so that they are not producing the full volume of potentially acid generating tailings, but moving towards separating that now, which isn’t something they’ve been doing since Copper Cliff’s tailings facility started being built decades ago.

So there are signs of companies making those shifts and making those smart decisions, to reposition themselves for closure, even if the facility wasn't built or designed with any kind of closure concept in place. Obviously when they started building Copper Cliff, there were no requirements in place for closure, so now they’re retrofitting and trying to make that work. And there are other sites that are doing that.       

IF: In our case, it is very much about actually transferring the ownership, of how to handle the tailings, to be able to bring that ownership with the local municipality, and we are actually thinking about making a common separate entity, joint owned, to challenge imagination for additional use of the tailings over time.  

And you can make wonders also with strong incentives, at least in Norway where we have really high taxes and things which you can reduce in order to really get that ingenuity and challenge into new thoughts on how to use it, and also to have the stakeholders commonly own the monetary end, the destiny of the tailings, it is pretty critical.

Barriers, Drivers & Opportunities

Reflecting on this first focus of the panel, I heard a few things in the responses, and perhaps you picked up on them too. 

Restrictive Regulations

Interestingly, it is our regulators who would like to see improved performance, and our stakeholders who have a desire to see the disappearance of problematic, legacy sites and the prevention of future ones. But, it is the regulations, in some cases, which prevent us from trying new things out, and perhaps that needs to change most rapidly.

This is not to suggest that permissions on discharge quality should be lightened in any way, or suggesting that industry would like to be "allowed" to temporarily have lower performance just to try things out.

Instead, what it means is that we should be able to work with our regulators and stakeholders to have some flexibility in timelines for reporting on various trials and tests that we might do. There needs to be some allowance to test at more sites that may otherwise be difficult to find solutions for. There need to be an opening of minds to the possibilities and alternate solutions.

Risk-Averse Operators

I feel that this point peeks through from some of Doug's and Charles' comments, but also generally from experience, and I think that everyone will be able to agree with this.

Organizations are risk-averse to trialling new technologies. This may be due to several things. Perhaps because they are worried about upsetting their performance records, as mentioned. Perhaps they've tried something in the past and it didn't work, as was suggested in Doug's earlier presentation, which he noted can surface even after 10-15 years of improvements to said technology! Or maybe it is simply because they don't want to expend the cost on something until it is fully proven.

Whatever the reason, if we want to become more adaptive and proactive to our rapidly changing environment in this world, we need to let go of "has it been proven - for my climatic conditions, in my commodity, on my geological makeup..."

The research stage of technology development differs from commercialization. Technology providers will not typically come forward with a solution until they know it has been tested, at least at a pilot scale, on representative samples. 

Simply consider running a pilot or two, perhaps in partnership with the technology provider, to see the potential for improvements. If it is too costly on your own, find a willing collaborator who has a similar challenge. 

You'll never know how something works for your site until you actually try it, and make the necessary tweaks, to optimize for your conditions. 

Reactive Mindsets

I loved hearing about the various examples presented on sites who are trying things out, and making changes to their operating practices. What disappoints me, however, is that most of these actions are only being taken when driven by other needs.

More tailings capacity to extend the mining life. A lack of water resource. To address regulatory concerns, or their stakeholders'.

What I'd like to hear more about are sites that are looking proactively at their developments, and with a mindset echoing that of Ivar's, where he indicated their entire strategy is built around future ownership of the property and its residual infrastructure and byproducts.

Incentivizing, and having an appropriate relationship with external stakeholders to allow open discussions around the possibilities - how the land will be utilized, what value might be obtained from the tailings or other byproducts, whether something should be done in partnership with the surrounding communities.

We have heard other partnership examples such as this, around the provision of energy and clean water - why not also in the residual materials management too?

In the next article, we'll dive more into the spectrum of how and what we might move forward with the idea of altering processes and recovering value from waste materials. What is happening now? What might be the opportunities? How can we make it work?