The Future of Tailings Management

Last week I attended the Mines and Technology Conference in Toronto, to catch up with what is happening in the mining world, and to moderate a panel on Evaluating the Impact of Technology on Tailings Management. 

At this conference, we heard a lot about how we can and should be using all of the data that we seem to own or have access to. And how we should enable our front line employees to make better decisions, to improve performance on several fronts and to lower costs, using said data.

There were many presentations showcasing just where that is happening in mining operations, and not only did we have an opportunity to live-connect with underground operators halfway around the world, we could see them, we could see what they were seeing and doing, and we could see all of the data being collected alongside the video screens - all on one interface. Imagine having access to that level of visibility for every part of your operation - this is happening now, maybe not everywhere, but coming to a mine near you soon.

Next, we also experienced augmented reality, where by having the operator put on a pair of glasses (or a helmet equipped with much more), we could see everything they could. The helmet included options for holographic views of moving equipment, complete with being able to walk around it, see through it, and more. The potential for its use in monitoring and maintenance is amazing. 

So, we are on the right track, and I believe that, even though we think we are an industry averse and slow to change, all of this will happen much quicker than we imagine. There are a lot more conversations showing an openness to change, as well as some leaders forging that path.

This will drastically alter our business and those who don't get on board and help move things forward, well, will likely disappear in time.  

But there was one area that was not discussed until the very last day, with the exception of a couple minor mentions, and that was tailings. Tailings, those end products that are unavoidable with our conventional mining and milling strategies. Those materials that last forever, that can have significant potential risks associated with them, and that carry a high cost of operation, closure and long term management. 

So with that, I am going to write a short series to cover some of the risks and opportunities for which we need to pay more attention to. Some of this I covered in the panel itself, some I have added depth to - for you can't cover everything in just a half-hour session!

The Risks of Tailings Management

I'm going to quote Dr. Andy Robertson, an expert in tailings who I've quoted before, and who regularly lectures about the rising risks of tailings management. His studies show how we are increasing risks by a factor of 20 every 1/3 century! How?

By the volumes that increase 10-fold due to decreasing ore grades around the world. By the heights of our dumps and dams that double to contain them. And by the expansive footprints of the tailings surfaces that increase 5-fold with said containment.

And what concerns me most about this is that we aren't really changing a lot about how we manage or contain our tailings to adapt to this, and the consequences of failure can be drastic. 

Following the Mt. Polley and Samarco dam failures, there has been a lot of effort to understand and apply learnings, to review existing facilities, to update protocols and guidelines for operations and to define qualified persons and competency levels, and to revise requirements, for the design of tailings containment dams. This work has been, and continues to be, carried out by a number of associations and industry organizations.

What may not be as well known, is that there is ongoing work with respect to disclosure standards, namely NI43-101 reporting, which happens at the early phases of assessment project feasibility, impacting investment profiles for each property. The results of this review will likely require a much higher level of detail on reporting of environment & social risks, including those associated with tailings and closure, at a much earlier phase of property assessment than ever before. 

And if we haven't been transparent about the risks of tailings until now, then it will become even more difficult to highlight that as we move forward. 

The Outlook

On the second day, Carl Weatherell from Canada Mining Innovation Council suggested a time will come when customers may choose to only purchase from providers who have no tailings or water risks, or other similar things. And I tend to agree. 

When influential, leading companies like Apple shout slogans like "No More Mining", we need to start paying attention. They've already created Liam, their robot that can disassemble an iPhone in 11 seconds, returning all of the internal parts into their supply chain, significantly reducing the demand that they have for a fresh supply of non-renewable resources.

If they can pull off this initiative, who will be next? And what will that mean for mining? Will we be the ones to step in and help them on their mission (and perhaps others' too?)

Society is becoming much more concerned and vocal about their wants and not afraid to protest mining developments, as we all know. And social media only adds to this pressure. The negative fanfare that mining regularly receives, drives decisions on investments and approvals…and both can have impacts on the feasibility of new developments. 

So, we need to really think about how we might reverse that trend of rising risk, and in doing so, somehow recover some value from these wastes to help pay for those efforts to maintain the feasibility of these developments.

Working to eliminate them is the goal that seems impossible now but will never come to fruition if we don't put the idea there first.

In the next few articles, I will share opportunities presented to our sector, as well as highlight some of the areas that we can reduce our risks AND recover value from these "waste" materials we produce every day. 

Go to the second article now: "Barriers to Embracing New Technologies"

Go to the third article now: "Collaborating to Extract Value from Waste"