At Seequent, we are innovating to enable the mining industry to transform the safety and sustainability of tailings storage facilities, build trust with local communities, and make major steps in fulfilling its corporate responsibilities.
Connection with communities and the social licence to operate have risen rapidly up the list of priorities facing the mining industry in the last few years, especially around tailings storage facilities (TSF). These are not areas the sector has been traditionally enthusiastic to embrace, but that’s changing.
So in 2020, how is the mining industry responding to the challenges facing tailings facilities and the need for better management, transparency, and communication? In our recent Lyceum 2020 virtual conference, we asked three experts from the industry for their views – Caius Priscu of Anglo American, Dirk Van Zyl of the University of British Columbia, and Adriaan Meintjes of SRK Consulting. Here is just of a short extract of the insights they shared.
How is the industry reacting?
In general, the mining industry is taking this extremely seriously. There have definitely been a few wake-up calls, if you want to call them that, that highlight how important these structures are. Tailings facilities are posing a potentially catastrophic risk for many if not all mining companies around the world. There is definitely a better understanding of the level of stewardship we need to implement for these facilities.
Dirk Van Zyl:
There is not the feeling of pushback that there might have been before. There really is an understanding that this is a serious subject. I think we are seeing big, big changes, more so than at any time in the last 50 years.
What are the changes you’ve seen?
From my perspective, the biggest significant change has been an awareness of our profession and an awareness of our practice areas which have lifted the importance of having the right people with the right skills in the right roles, and I cannot emphasise that enough.
Dirk Van Zyl:
A more detailed evaluation of alternatives for sites and a clearer understanding of the consequences of failure. There is a difference in how companies have really taken this up and for smaller, junior companies there is still a maturity issue in terms of how they have worked around the tailings management piece. But I am very encouraged to see where we are right now.
How does the industry go forward to build trust with communities and making stronger connections with them?
For the mining industry in general, the key word is going to be transparency, it’s the number one topic on the table. From an Anglo American perspective, we already do quite a bit, sharing information with our local communities, having open doors to our offices, and site visits to
our facilities from the local communities. Transparency and more formal reporting at a corporate level will become the norm.
Another dimension will be to ensure that everybody understands the topic. There is some education and training required to convert the understanding from a technical point of view more into layman’s terms so everyone can understand equally well.
Dirk Van Zyl:
This idea of sharing information and helping people understand it so they can appreciate we are transparent is something engineers should take up as well, not just the communications departments within companies. This is another big challenge. Engineers are not very good at dealing at this level.
We think, ok, some other guys in the company will take care of it!
What impact will the publication of the Global Industry Standards on tailings management have?
The standard is very much welcome. I think it brings companies to a level playing field and it will help prevent catastrophic failures of these
facilities in the future. But the devil is in the details. How well will it be implemented? Do we have the resources and the people to implement it? Are there enough specialists in the industry to implement this at a global scale?
Tailings have time dependent and load dependent properties and therefore you cannot do one set of tests and think you have defined the future. The implementation of the global standard needs to consider the scarcity of resource in the tailings business from clients to contractors to service
providers and consultants – all the spheres of the tailings business. It has to be a comprehensive team and that needs significant consideration.
Dirk Van Zyl:
As we move forward it will be about integration the engineering, the environmental, and the social elements. It is really bringing together that combination of all the professions
What new challenges do the audits and reviews pose for consulting firms and mining companies in terms of transparency?
There is a requirement for independent review boards or panels, but in the future we will soon be running out of independent reviewers because everybody is reviewing everybody else or the design of someone else! So that will be a big challenge. What I can also see coming is that I think we are going to see more intense collaboration between peers with regard to reviews – discussions between peers, supporting each other, informally exchanging ideas and knowledge of how we do things, both exchanges between mining companies and between various engineers of record.
One of the greatest benefits of the global standard is that it defines a consistent roadmap. On greenfield sites, the new way of doing tailings management according to the new standard will afford greater credibility on all parts. However, the biggest challenge relates to sites where there are legacy issues in terms of a lack of trust, and that will take considerable effort and time. But this is the best way forward: to undertake all communications in a transparent manner.
Dirk Van Zyl:
What we are seeing now really is tailings engineering becoming a career path and all mining companies will have to look at this very seriously. This is not something only for the consultants but something that will have to happen within the companies themselves.