Exploring Legacy Issues in the Mining Industry: Past, Present and Future (Part 1)

Date Posted

The way we extract and process resources is constantly changing. The practices and technologies (and legacies) in place today are a consequence of what were industry standards decades ago. What are the potential legacies of the future? How can we avoid them, and how can an industry that extracts non-renewable resources be sustainable?

SRC hosted a panel event with four industry experts for a discussion about the progression of historic mining practices—the legacy issues we face today and what we may face tomorrow, and what sustainability really means.

They shared their experiences working with not only the mining sector on the current challenges facing industry, but also the oil sector, and the collaborative ways in which we’re all working together to develop solutions that address changing societal, environmental and economic needs.

Short on time? Here are some highlights from the conversation. Responses have been summarized and modified slightly for clarity and length. This is part one of two. 

About the participants

  • Lucinda Wood provides strategic business development expertise across SRC and moderated the discussion.
  • Ian Wilson manages SRC’s Environmental Remediation team and leads SRC’s technical role in the Saskatchewan Oil and Gas Accelerated Site Closure Program.
  • Lesley McGilp manages SRC’s Pipe Flow Technology Centre™ and supports other teams across the Mining and Energy Division.
  • Bernard Gartner provides strategic direction for SRC’s Mining and Energy Division through his role as business development director.

Lucinda: What do you think are the most important legacy issues from the past? And do you think there's a way we could have avoided them? I want us to think of legacy, not just in terms of environmental legacy, but also technological legacies, social legacies. 

Lesley: The one that comes to mind to me is tailings. Could we have avoided tailings? Perhaps not, but mitigated, maybe yes. With a little more focus on the legacy issues from the start I think that we can do better. And it's understandable when you're building a new installation that you're focused on getting the plant running, but I think there's value in looking at how to mitigate the long-term issues, and tailings is definitely a big one.

Ian: I would agree. At least as a remediation practitioner working on legacy sites, I'd say tailings are probably our most difficult area for management. And potentially looking at not only on the exploration side, but on the processing side. Some minerals that cause acid rock leachate is also something that we’re dealing with at a lot of at our [remediation] sites. So, a lot of time the two go hand in hand—tailings and acid rock drainage tailings on some of our sites. 

I might also add being able to build that communication and trust with some of the local stakeholders right from the start. I’d also add in better records or data management on legacy sites and being able to use that not only on the remediation side, but on the assessment side.

Bernard: In the past, most explorers were looking for the find, right? They were looking for the elements, they were looking for uranium, for gold. They were trying to process that material based on those specific things. In the past, there wasn't a lot of in-depth looking at analytical. Things were done in parts per million back then; now it’s parts per billion. 

I remember when we first started, we still had the dot matrix cards that you put into the computers, trying to figure out how to get elemental analysis with AA lamps. That's the nice thing about legacy is that you can see things that were not done in the past versus today. It's amazing what can be done today. So that's where the exploration has really expanded; they’re looking at mineralogy [now].

Lucinda: That's interesting, Bernard, about how the technology has enabled us to spot problems. I wonder if that's one of the key solutions going into the future; how the rise of technology can help us with addressing both legacy issues and perhaps identifying them early on.

Lesley: I think that technology is a huge aspect of how we can improve. One thing that comes to mind from my experiences is the collaboration that I've seen in industry in terms of technological development. If there are techniques that industry sees as a little bit far out there, but could have real value in reducing environmental impacts, processing techniques for example, that could really move the dial in terms of reducing the legacy issues and the closure challenges that Ian's team has to wrestle with when it gets to that. 

Lucinda: It sounds like it’s important to integrate environment and process, I would add mining and exploration too, and not keeping them so siloed.

Ian: I think looking back from the closure side and looking back through the entirety of the mining cycle, instead of separately managing and assessing each of the aspects, looking at them as a whole, as Lesley had alluded to. Maybe on the exploration side or on the mill processing side, looking at the mineralogy with the end point in mind. Is the processing or the mineralogy on the exploration side going to lead to greater cleanup costs, greater acid rock generation on the back side? 

Lucinda: It sounds, Ian, like your knowledge about how to do these complex closures would be interesting, even in exploration, in designing mine sites. Bernard, you’ve been more involved on the exploration side – what have you seen in terms of remediation?

Bernard: Typically in exploration now people are doing larger [analytical] packages and along with those packages, a lot of the labs, such as SRC Geoanalytical Laboratories, have a really strong mineral processing group. A lot of our packages integrate with QEMSCAN, with mineralogy, with our mineral processing group. So, it comes earlier now than it ever did before. 

In the exploration stage, we're starting to see more ore characterization versus in the past. When we used to do the processing, used to find the deposit, it would go to the mill, then it would go to the processing people and then the process would be setup. Now, that integration has moved all the way to the front and we can now assist with technology at the early stage of exploration, so that they can actually get an assessment prior to even thinking of building a mine.

Lesley: The example that comes to my mind is the impact of active clays and just understanding those sorts of issues in advance. You don't necessarily have to solve all the problems at the beginning, but being aware of what challenges you're going to be working with is so helpful for informing [decisions] and can help maybe lead you to do some progressive research and progressive technological developments and reclamation testwork as you move through your mining cycle, rather than waiting until production is nearly complete to start tackling those issues.

Ian: Good point, Lesley. We're seeing that more and more on the mining side where they're setting themselves up for mine closure right at the start and they're closing as they go, which is really important. 

Lucinda: On the role of technology, Ian, and also the issue of data that you mentioned, what about drones and monitoring tailings, their size and stability? I know that we use drones, too, in our cleanups. Are we using these technologies adequately and is the reporting on the captured data currently a problem? What are your thoughts on how to get data and how is data going to help us resolve some legacy issues?

Ian: When we first started, some of our legacy sites didn't have a lot of data. Our data in essence was in various forms all over the place, like mismatched socks in different drawers. So, we looked at overall data management. We set up a system, a database or repository, where we put everything in like our geomatic data, chemical data and radiological data for our sites. Then we make querying tools and bring multi-variate comparison and modelling out of that. 

I would suggest, at least from data application on some of our sites, that was probably our greatest win, being able to have a consistent way of collecting data, whether it's drones, taking notebooks and putting it into one repository for all data associated with the sites, and then being able to take that data out and using it meaningfully; not only from a regulatory standpoint, but for modelling and for recordkeeping. So data plays a large role, including the approach and management of it, on our legacy sites.

Lucinda: Do we have the technology to eliminate tailings? A way of thinking about it is not eliminating tailings but turning them into a product. 

Lesley: I don't think we will ever get away from having reject material. We're looking for certain things in the rock, maybe it's gold, maybe it's bitumen or uranium. There will always be material that wasn't what you were looking for, the gangue. But is that tailings and are there other things in there that could be utilized? That's sort of the question of waste valorization: are there things that, now with a new lens, at a different point in history, we want from those tailings that didn't have value when the mine was first developed? There's a lot of activity in that area these days, looking at the tailings material and are there things that we can recover.

And because that material has been processed to some degree, it's often been milled already, the process of recovering those things from tailings may be less energy intensive. There's kind of a gold mine in the waste heap, in some cases, and technological development has changed. What we consider to be an economically viable asset has changed.

There will be parts of the gangue we don't have a use for, and we still need to address how we utilize or how we mitigate the volume of that material and how we safely store it and perhaps, you know, even how we process it. The tailings are not just the gangue, it's all of the water chemicals that we've used in processing the material. So when we make smarter choices, more environmentally compatible choices, for how we process ore that will also help mitigate the impact of tailings at closure. 

Bernard: There are also initiatives right now looking at pre-processing material, such as ore characterization, CT scanning, or QEMSCAN; looking at the actual makeup of the material, whether or not sensor-based sorting can be used, which we do here as well. There are various processes that we can look at to lessen what's being milled, to lessen what is put into tailings.

Lesley: Yes, that’s a huge emerging area, sensor-based sorting. The concept of pre-sorting I think of it a little bit like recycling; let's just focus on the stuff that we can use and get it into different categories and then maybe we don't get as much of the material wet, which can have a big impact, particularly as it relates to challenges with active clays. If they don't contact water, then your challenges with that material are significantly mitigated.

Ian: I think on a larger scale, a lot of companies are starting to look at hard rock leaching as a way of extracting the minerals and the ore they need from a leachate standpoint, thereby reducing or eliminating tailings. Albeit, you are still looking at other factors in the environmental footprint, but it minimizes your environmental footprint if you don't have waste rock and you don't have tailings.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this discussion! Learn more about SRC's mining and environmental services.