Brisbane-based mining specialist firm Cartledge Mining and Geotechnics (CM&G) said that the mining industry will face challenges in meeting the new Global Industry Standard Tailings Management (GISTM) outline due to limited education modules.
CM&G Principal Geotechnical Engineer, Keith Mandisodza, has been engaged across several tailings projects and said that a major issue being echoed across the industry was the need for a national and global commitment to education and training more focused on tailings engineering.
“There is a genuine concern that there are not enough trained tailings engineers to meet the Standard’s requirements set out by GISTM here in Australia and more so globally,” said Mandisodza.
“The Standard states that it ‘strives to achieve the ultimate goal of zero harm to people and the environment with zero tolerance for human fatality.’
“But there is a disconnect between this expectation and the realities on the ground – the real ‘implementation trenches’ of the Standard, which is the skill set and experience required of engineers and all the supporting functions required to drive the implementation.
“Now more than ever, we need a national approach to supporting engineers with the necessary research and practical expertise to continue the upward trajectory of tailings engineering in Australia,” he said.
According to a recent paper presented at the 2020 Tailings and Mine Waste Conference, the total number of tailings facilities in Australia is estimated to sit between 470 to 1100, with the estimated annual personnel and labour resources required to service the facilities sitting around 10,000 to 11,500.
These estimates reflected were based on all those facilities being considered as posing ‘hazard potential’ criteria.
“Servicing the current number of facilities requires adequate and relevant training that ensures tailings management is implemented to the Standard where all risk is mitigated and controlled within appropriate risk-management frameworks,” Mandisodza said.
The voluntary adoption requirement by the Standard International Council for Mining and Metals (ICMM) mandates members to some degree; however, for non-members of ICMM, they do not have to adopt the Standard, which leaves room for loopholes in connection with the ‘zero-harm’ mission set out by GITSM.
Investor groups might have a critical role to play in driving the implementation of the Standard; where an investor might look to limit funding based on non-compliance, the mining company woud see a tangible impact to their operational capability which could positively motivate them to comply with the Standard.
“The result of an investor divestment in the event of non-compliance can heavily affect mining operations in significant ways,” Mandisodza said.
“With the Standard still very much in its infancy, it is hard to determine the industry’s future in meeting the tailings standards. Still, one thing is clear…the chasm between the expectations outlined in the Standard compared with the reality of delivering adequate engineering and capabilities is widening.
“We are in a position to protect these interests under a national approach,” he said. “We need to see a stronger understanding of soil mechanics across the board, relevant training in tailings governance, the development of comprehensive tailings stewardship programs, and a much greater ‘open source’ sharing of knowledge of tailings facilities including closer looks at database insights, dam types and cases of failure.
“Beyond this, more research sharing into the material behaviour of tailings across all project stages, more stringent controls during operations and the construction of tailings dams, and adopting ethical standards as set out under the PE Act will be needed to create a robust mining sector that is prepared to implement GISTM properly,” he said.
According to Mandisodza, CM&G has been working to bridge the gap between the Standard’s requirements and existing company policies and systems by helping operators get processes in place that promote compliance with the Standard.
“It’s not a feat that can be established overnight and will probably take years to get most operators ready for,” he said. “We are focusing on helping all mining stakeholders have a higher degree of involvement with tailings facilities and the requirements needed to manage their facilities effectively.
“A review of the governance and tailings management systems usually indicates the operators’ status in tailings management and governance structures, and this is benchmarked against the requirements of the Standards,” Mandisodza said.
The tailings expert said the review then allowed for the adoption of strategies to achieve compliance.
“The GISTM is a big step towards better tailings dams governance and management. However, the Standard lacks in its cause because of its voluntary and self-regulated approach.
“We would like to hear from other mining companies on their concerns on meeting the Standards, so we can collectively shape a framework to be considered that will properly educate and skill-up engineers and managers in ensuring the continued integrity of the tailings landscape in Australia and globally,” he said.
Interested parties are encouraged to contact CM&G via their profile.