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PDAC shows two directions for engineers in the mining sector

At the annual Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) conference in Toronto from March 3-6, many of the conversations were around the challenges in raising financing. However, some of the most in-demand sessions were about...


At the annual Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) conference in Toronto from March 3-6, many of the conversations were around the challenges in raising financing. However, some of the most in-demand sessions were about meeting the growing expectations around managing the environmental, social and economic impacts of mining.

Both issues have solutions that lie in engineering and point to ways consulting engineers can develop their careers and businesses.

First. engineers need to develop their “soft” skills to support mining. In the mining sector, it is often the small, entrepreneurial “junior” mining companies that discover and develop mineral prospects, generally with the goal of selling out to one of the “major” mining companies.

Previously, the value of a mine would be based largely on the resource and how it is being extracted. Many presenters at PDAC, however, indicated that it is increasingly important that the mine meet current expectations around Community and Social Responsibility (CSR).

Community and Social Responsibility
In a panel discussion in the well-attended CSR track, a representative of Export Development Canada said that she and her fellow financiers require that all companies they finance be familiar with CSR issues and show that they have the capacity to meet their obligations.

A representative of one of the major mining companies said that she is impressed with the familiarity many junior mining companies have shown in CSR issues, and their willingness to invest scarce money in managing their social, environmental and economic effects.

Many presenters emphasized that building good relations with nearby communities must start early in the project cycle. Otherwise, local residents see too many unfamiliar pickup trucks going through their community, and suspicion takes hold.

While geologists are some of the first professionals on the site of a proposed mine, the engineers are close behind, planning the design and location of the ore-processing mill, haul roads and other infrastructure. Increasingly, it is important for this work to be done in consultation with, and to the approval of, community leaders and members. Engineers will have to get good at tasks such as interviewing community elders about the location of rare-species habitats, ceremonially important plants, and burial grounds so as to design the mine in a way that respects traditional uses.

CSR matters are becoming more important from a competitive point of view as well. Stephen Lindley, Director, EA & Planning for the Environmental Division of SNC-Lavalin, said in an interview after his panel presentation that mining company clients look for compatibility in many areas such as ethics, health and safety, and CSR policies.

Lindley said that stakeholders, too, are asking penetrating questions of engineering firms and other service providers to see what values they bring to the process. In some cases, community members are expecting job creation and other benefits from engineering firms, as they do from the resource companies themselves.

Minimizing surface impacts
Engineers are being called upon to meet other changing needs of mining companies as well. André Van Wyk of engineering firm DRA Americas, an exhibitor at the trade show, says that within the past few years, there has come to be significant pressure on mines to minimize their impacts on the surface.

Previous, and even current, practice has been for mines to bring to the surface almost all the “development” rock (rock removed for shafts, tunnels and other works), as well as the metal-bearing ore. After processing, most of the “tailings” (ore that has been ground into sand-like consistency to remove the resource) would be disposed of on the surface, under water and behind a tailings dam.

Engineers will be expected to become skilled at helping with the new trends to minimize surface impacts. Two main trends Van Wyk and others at the conference sited are:

Moving the mill underground. Even five years ago, many members of the industry would consider locating a mill underground an expense dooming the mine to unprofitability. Now, the drive to reduce surface impacts is seeing more mills located in underground caverns rather than have them take up surface area. This trend also means that the ore does not have to be carried to the surface, and the tailings and waste rock can be more easily disposed of in worked-out tunnels.

Better tailings solutions. Tailings have long been an environmental hazard because of their potential to release metals, salts and acids into watercourses. Rather than dispose of the tailings in a facility that requires perpetual maintenance, mines are focusing more on “thickened tailings,” which means adding chemicals to the slurry so that that the tailings dry into a solid mass that can then be planted with vegetation to reduce the potential for releasing contaminants into the water supply.

Mines are also getting better at disposing of tailings underground to minimize the environmental risks, a trend which is made easier by the advances in thickened tailings technology and underground mills.

Carl Friesen is based in Mississauga, Ontario and writes on environmental topics.