What’s required to reduce the risks around tailings?
When it comes to the catastrophic failure of tailings ponds, the operational word is ‘catastrophic’. Events like Brumadinho in Brazil and Jagersfontein in South Africa destroy and pollute on a large scale. While major miners have stepped up their tailings tactics in recent years, local practices can undercut solid design. As the 2022 International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) Tailings Roadmap outlines, the threat of catastrophic failure is still present and likely to grow, simply by virtue of accelerating mineral requirements.
The goal of the ICMM Tailings Innovation Initiative is to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure. It’s a major undertaking that brought together roughly a third of the global mining and metals industry including major miners; mining equipment, technology and services (METS) companies; and academics.
Systemic change required
While reducing the risk of catastrophic failure sounds simple, it requires a change in the relationship between cut-off grade, market conditions and tailings production. This broad systemic change is something that CMIC’s Towards Zero Waste Mining initiative has been making rapid inroads into for several years now. It’s why we were selected to participate in the Tailings Innovation Initiative: we have a long track record of putting multi-company collaborations together on projects, and we have developed multiple roadmaps.
As a strategic partner in the ICMM Initiative, we shared what we had learned, then, once the Initiative culminated in the Tailings Innovation Initiative Roadmap, we carried on with the practical work involved in lowering tailings waste and risk.
Looking at tailings-pond construction and processes in isolation won’t create systemic change. A holistic complete-mine view is required, one that includes a deep dive into energy and water footprint, platform technologies and process changes. The age-old practice of blasting and hauling rock to the surface, even when we know that roughly 99 per cent of it is waste, needs rethinking. If you can reduce the amount of waste going to the surface, you change everything. That’s systemic change.
A matter of culture
One of the biggest roadblocks to such change is not technology or cost, but culture. When you have been doing something for 100 years, it’s not easy to change. In mining today, we still tend to look at our business as separate units that bolt together, rather than as a unified system. When you talk about a mechanical cutter costing $20 million to acquire and $100 million to implement, that’s typically where the conversation stops…even though the technology adds black to the balance sheet when considered as part of whole-mine, life-of-mine operations.
Mechanical cutting is an example of a technology that enables the implementation of additional technologies such as ore sorting at the face, underground. What if combining mechanical cutting and ore sorting at the face reduced waste by 50 per cent? What is the impact on the energy, water and environmental footprint equations? Such a reduction is forecast to cut energy consumption a minimum of 35 per cent, water consumption 50 per cent and tailings footprints 50 per cent as well. In other words, the knock-on savings are enormous. System thinking, flow-sheet thinking, is what has been missing in our industry. But that’s starting to change, in lockstep with mining culture.
To mobilize support for technical initiatives within an organization, you need to undertake a series of social process steps, as opposed to technological steps. This is something that CMIC excels at. Our level-setting process and internal Collaboration Readiness Level methodologies help us get parties rapidly to where they need to be in order to collaborate successfully, then to accelerate collaboration once it is in motion. We align our strategic directions with those of participant companies, ensuring that we’re all pointing, then moving, in the same direction. We fulfil a ‘trusted broker’ role, providing a place that everyone knows is safe to openly discuss and share internal information and IP.
Changing by doing
While CMIC has demonstrated great strength in strategic planning, we realized early on that to move things forward, the rubber has to hit the road fairly quickly. Thanks to our technology co-development projects and other work with our METS partners, we were able to add serious acumen in many technology areas that the ICMM Initiative also deemed as having the greatest impact on tailings reduction. CMIC projects currently account for 75 per cent of transformative projects and 50 per cent of disruptive projects on the roadmap:
Many of our initiatives, undertaken with major mining company partners, weren’t begun with well-developed business cases, but rather with innovation cases. For example, companies are investing in CAHM—a technology to radically reduce energy in processing circuits —because they understand the opportunity the technology presents. Business cases are of course required and as the technology matures they will emerge.
The bottom line? If the Technology Readiness Level and Collaboration Readiness Level are both high, the groups that convene under the ReThink Mining banner will put money into innovation cases and work quickly until they have reached a certain point, then build business cases around them.
As we push forward on the innovation front–we continue to add more transformative and disruptive projects to our portfolio–we are starting to see big changes happen. Those changes will include tailings reductions, and with them a reduction in risks, as the face of mining changes and grows more efficient. The key is to pursue active innovation. This most often requires co-development of technology between companies and organizations, especially at the execution level. For that to happen, some degree of cultural adjustment is required. These things together—innovation and cultural change—are what’s going to get us to where we want to be most quickly.