Collaborating to Extract Value from Waste

How do we get more buy in to actually turning mine tailings into a product?

Is there more opportunity to create products out of these materials or to have them used as some other resources for reclamation / stabilization of older sites?

How do we encourage more collaboration on these fronts?

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.

This article is the third in a series, based on sessions of the Mines and Technology conference held in Toronto, October 2-4, 2017. To review the first two articles, visit "The Future of Tailings Management", and "Barriers to Embracing New Technologies"

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 back in to the session...

Jumping to the Future

In Doug's presentation on tailings management earlier in the day, he highlighted that up to 85% of a tailings volume is typically benign in nature - basically sand and silt-sized materials made up of the more inert components of the host geological materials surrounding the orebody, and including those materials liberated and separated prior to the chemical processing steps.

The remaining volume is made up of process residuals - precipitates created through the neutralization of very acidic or basic solutions, which typically contain all of the dissolved metals released during chemical extraction of the desired elements. These precipitates are typically the sources of most potential contaminants from tailings, depending on their geochemical stability under the depositional conditions.

He suggested that, should we keep these materials separated as primary and secondary tailings, we would drastically improve the safety and options for managing our total tailings volumes.

The primary, lower-risk materials, could be dewatered, dry-stacked, and either reclaimed progressively, or used for reclamation materials, or even potentially used for other construction activities - testing required first, of course, to prove their innocuous nature. [This technology for dry-stacking was shared just recently!]

The secondary, metals-laden tailings, would be a much smaller volume to manage, and its risk of management significantly diminished using practices we currently apply.

Additionally, we would also have the option to assess the secondary stream to determine if there were residual value within. Are there other critical elements present in sufficient content, substantiating extraction on a smaller scale? Could alternate, marketable, minerals be produced by some conversion process? If so, would the economics prove its worth? 

What Incents this Shift? What Stalls it?

With these thoughts, we jumped forward in the dialogue with the assumption that mining operations will begin the practice of segregating tailings materials in this fashion, to help lower risks.

But, it was acknowledged that even if we segregate them, we still need to manage these materials over time, we still have to close the facilities they are stored within, and we still need to monitor these structures to show that they are performing fine. 

If we are going to pay for the separation up front, and maybe we stop looking at NPV only, and actually look at the full costing of a project - as Charles mentioned - these are real costs we face at the end of a mine development.

So what really drives the change, and how are collaborations initiated to extract further value, or use the tailings for something else, as opposed to just continuing to manage them in tailings containment facilities?

DM: I think that will be begin to happen automatically.

For example, many of the remotes sites that have the materials, they have nearby Aboriginal communities nearby who are looking for business opportunities. So when you can move that benign tails into a position where it is deposited and you can then begin to grow other plants on that for waste to energy systems, where they already have limitations on the energy available to them from the grid, they can augment that for a waste to energy system on a property that they can essentially incorporate into their reserve. So they are looking for opportunities to do those kinds of thing.

If there are other primary minerals within that mass, or in the secondary tail, some of those things have value too. There are already discussions happening in companies in Ontario and Aboriginal communities up north, close to Timmins for example, of what the share of that benefit will be from the value generated from, in one case, the secondary concentrate, in one case, the secondary tail.  

"So, it will be driven by business opportunities." - Doug Morrison, CEMI

There are smaller communities in multiple places, that are looking for these opportunities and the more we can develop technologies, and license them out into those communities, the business mechanisms will kick in themselves, to drive that process forward. 

CD: I think a lot of thinking outside of the box in that regard, particularly where we are extracting any sort of residual value from tailings.

There is one facility in northern Ontario that was a gold mine, had a fair bit of molybdenum in their tailings, so there’s almost a molybdenum mine waiting for somebody to reprocess their tailings, and there’s other examples like that.

And the advantage then is perhaps, that you can take a much older mine, you can reprocess the old tailings, and you can deposit them in a better engineered facility along the way. You might actually still lose a little money in it, but in the end you’ve much reduced the environmental risks, you’ve reduced the environmental liabilities. 

But once you get to the point where you have clean tailings, I think it’s a lot more challenging then to figure out what you can do with them, and you’re trying to look for an after-market for them, particularly when there’s a lot of them.

You may be able to find a market - I was reading an article about a global shortage of aggregate, for construction - sand and other materials like that, and issues around sand piracy, basically with illegal mining of sand and aggregate in various countries. [I included this in my 2017 CIM presentation "Extracting Value from Sunk & Presumed Costs" too.]

If you look at Highland Valley Copper, with 150,000 tonnes of clean sand a day, that’s a lot of sand, but it’s a lot of sand to then ship even the relatively short distance by rail to Vancouver, and then out somewhere else. And it’s very fine sand, and that fine may actually be useless construction aggregate compared to some other third party product.

And there’s an environmental impact to moving that material, from say Highland Valley Copper to Vancouver, or moving that material from a much more remote site, like say from Mt. Milligan in BC, out to the coast, to then transport to market. So, there’s always going to be an environmental tradeoff - there is increased GHG emissions, there’s increased diesel consumption from the trains in moving via rail, there’s increased community impacts along the way.

People might not want that extra train traffic, the extra noise, the extra danger that goes with it. So there’s a whole range of factors that come into.

Is it really practical to be able to find an after-market once we’ve got to where there is clean tailings, even in a site that is relatively close and relatively well connected by rail infrastructure as a site like Highland Valley Copper?

There was a UN report that is supposed to be released in a few weeks that we reviewed a draft of, and they talked a lot about - we’ll solve the problem just by finding a way to build bricks out of tailings, or something like that.

OK - that sounds great, but when you have 150,000 tonnes of this stuff being produced every day, who wants it? So that’s a real challenge -

"It’s the practical limitations to how much material we’re producing, and where our sites are located." - Charles Dumaresq, MAC

IF: I think that’s a very good point. I think we have to be realistic, and we have to be honest, and share our thoughts with everyone around us. 

We have already approval as capping materials by the local authorities in Norway, who said we can put that on top of polluted sediments in harbours. So we have 17 harbours around in Norway, which are owned by the authorities, which need capping materials. But of course, transportation is an issue, and timing is an issue.

And then we have a couple of submarines from the second world war, contaminated with a lot of mercury, that probably they will be capped with something - and we can do that with our materials. But again, it’s a cost issue. 

"But in order to get the ball rolling in a positive way, I think we have to share the attitude also with the area around us, so that we have a common direction, and certainly be honest about it." - Ivar Fossum, Nordic Mining

DM: I think also it goes back to the beginning of the process, to consider these opportunities. Right?

"It’s not like we’ve done a lot of analysis on all the tails that we have." - Doug Morrison, CEMI

And although aggregates are one of the lowest value products that we produce, the fact is that high quality silica is required for fluxes in smelters. And we’re already restricted in finding these high quality silicas. In northern Ontario, we used to have quite a few, and now they are no longer of sufficient quality or purity of silica to be applicable as a flux in the smelters. That material has to come from somewhere else.

If you think of just the basalt or norites that we have in Ontario in the Sudbury area, that’s the host rock that we have, but crusher dust from a basaltic or norific operation is the most inert filter material that can be used.

It is 60-70% more valuable as a filter for swimming pools or tropical fish tanks, than it is for any other form as an aggregate. So, and Sudbury has, I don’t know - gazillions of tonnes of norite tails at that size fragmentation. We simply haven’t paid any attention to those things. 

There are other places in the world that put a lot of effort into mining those products, as a primary product. And we just have them sitting in our back yard and nobody has examined the economic opportunity to extract that material. Until we start to reprocess these tailings, there is really no way to realize that.

Acknowledging the Potential, But

Throughout this dialogue, I found myself thinking that it interesting that there was an openness to the idea of the potential for finding value in wastes, all the while maintaining a mindset that the economics are not there, nor the desire for the potential trade-offs when it comes to transportation impacts.

We need to remember that these are current perspectives.

Every day we hear about new technologies that reduce potential impacts when compared to older technologies - take this article about Toyota's water-vapour emitting trucks, for example. We hear about all kinds of projects and manufacturers making products entirely out of recycled oceanic plastic. And we are hearing more and more about mining projects gaining tremendous results in working with other sectors to advance their performance using big data. 

I highlighted during the session that if these materials are just sitting there, we have to pay for managing them anyways. If you then think about the lifecycle costs of another development forming somewhere else to produce minerals which may be present in our wastes, there is more to the economic evaluation than comparing the cost of processing with its marketable value. There’s the whole cost of finding the resource, permitting and then developing the property, the operations, and then all of the closure issues that would go with that as well. 

We just have it there, already broken down - and it may not seem economical from our perspective - but if you incorporate all of those other costs, somebody else in that other commodity may see very good value.

But regarding this, three things I heard was:

1. We won’t know what’s there to market until we process it,

2. Who will want it, once we process, and

3. We haven't done a lot of analysis to find out what we have. 

I would argue that we have plenty of data on our existing tailings facilities, and that we should actually be throwing it out there in some sort of challenge to just ask the public - what do you see here? What value do you see here?

This sort of challenge has already been issued by the mining sector - remember the challenge by Integra Gold to find the next gold mine using six terrabytes of data? What's to say we can't do the same with tailings data, only on a smaller scale?

The European Union has taken a broad look at their mine wastes to discover what critical elements exist within, as part of their Raw Materials Initiative. This is a positive first step to assessing the potential value their wastes possess. In addition to this, they have several targets for 2020

  • up to 10 innovative pilot actions (e.g. demonstration plants) for exploration, extraction and processing, collection and recycling;
  • substitutes for at least three key applications of critical and scarce raw materials;
  • enhanced efficiency in material use and in prevention, re-use and recycling of valuable raw materials from waste streams, with a specific focus on materials having a potentially negative impact on the environment;
  • a Network of Research, Education and Training Centres on Sustainable Mining and Materials Management (M³);
  • European standardised statistical instruments for the survey of resources and reserves and a 3-D geological map;
  • a dynamic modelling system linking trends in supply and demand with economically exploitable reserves and a full lifecycle analysis;
  • a pro-active strategy of the EU in multi-lateral organisations and in bilateral relations,  such as with the US, Japan and Australia in the different areas covered by the Partnership.

Why aren't we doing the same, in Canada, or just globally?

If we determine what's there, we can let the world know about it and ask - who needs this? Maybe we don't need to do anything more than that...perhaps, as Doug suggests, there is already a demand for what we have. Perhaps we can tweak our processing to match the needs of a potential partner - create a value-add product to help pay for those other processing applications. 

Doug mentioned one of the mines he was a consultant for actually produced calcium carbonate for toothpaste. A fairly un-complicated process - all you do is grind it up to a very fine powder, but he noted that it’s a critical component requiring a certain size gradation to be suitable for toothpaste.

The challenge was that it has to remain white, and most calcium carbonates begin to turn yellow at a very very fine grind. He joked about the fact that nobody wants to buy yellow toothpaste…it’s very effective at cleaning your teeth, and it makes no difference whatsoever, but marketing tells us we have to have pure white toothpaste. 

The reason for this is just a marketing campaign that says your toothpaste has to be white, unless the company has put a deliberate yellow gel into the toothpaste to make it more palatable for kids to use…[there were chuckles from everyone on this!]

Marketing is a very strong tool within our reach, and if only manufacturers could find out about the products we have to offer, there may be a lot more value to be gained from our deposits. 

All these things as we begin to examine these economic opportunities will begin to shift. As I said already, when companies like Apple begin to say "No More Mining" we need to start thinking more about how we fit into the circular economy. Extracting the maximum value from our byproducts is one of those ways.

Finally, we need to start thinking and saying that we can do things - like Apple with their new slogan.

If it’s not possible right now, as long as we set a goal, and reach out for help, the solutions will come!

IF: I agree - it’s a culture I think. We have to change the culture. We have to agree at the leadership of the organization, and it’s a point where we have to be very humble, and come together and get thoughts into it. 

Who's up for the Challenge?

An audience member made the following observation, and posed a couple questions: The oil and gas industry has massive piles of sulphur on their properties, that you can see from space. Are there other industries with whom you can collaborate? To what extent have there been a meeting of minds looking at addressing some of these same issues, and sharing best practices across industries where there are entities trying to solve these challenges?

KC: Canada Mining Innovation Council has been inviting different groups of this sort, and COSIA is one of them along with multiple research groups and other technology providers. So there is a venue for that kind of collaboration, and it’s not the only one around the world. It’s more a matter of getting that information out there, I think. The collaboration is starting to occur a lot more than it has in the past.

CD: I think a different angle on that collaboration is in the use by the mining industry of other people’s wastes that have organics. Be they pulp and paper waste, or even municipal sewage sludge, to use in progressive reclamation, or closure reclamation activities. There’s an increasing use there of one person’s wastes being used by the mining industry, and then at least eliminating that waste stream by making effective use of it in reclamation of mining.

Which isn’t quite the same thing as what you were talking about, but in terms of collaborating with these larger problems, but a good example of turning someone else’s waste into something useful.

So, it goes to show that the mining is already collaborating on some fronts, which many people within the mining sector are aware of, but perhaps there is not much knowledge of that outside of our sector.

So let's educate a few people, and then throw a few questions out there, to see who is willing to collaborate and discover...

What makeup of marketable minerals and compounds might be in those tailings?

How would these be marketed?

How might we convert them into the marketable materials?

How might we move them to market without "trade-off" environmental and social impacts?

Who might we partner with to do all of this?

In the next and final article, I hope to circle back to a part of the dialogue I skipped over, and only briefly touched on otherwise. This is regarding the more proactive approach to holistically planning our new developments alongside our external stakeholders.

Ivar shared a bit about how the environmental assessment process works in Norway, and I believe it matches more closely with where Canada's assessment process is headed. I believe it will also facilitate a lot more of this in a proactive sense. 

For now, I look forward to the comments you may have on this article!