Mine Tailings - Not knowing is no longer an option

Toward the end of the 1948 film, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the three gold miners realize the seam of ore is running out. “Let’s call it quits and pack up,” Dobbs, played by Humphrey Bogart, is quick to say. “The sooner the better as far as I’m concerned.”

Howard, the old miner (aka Walter Huston) replies, “It’ll take another week to break down the mine and put the mountain back in shape.” Dobbs is dumfounded. “Do what to the mountain?” he says.

Howard responds, “Make her appear like she was before we came.”

“I don’t get it,” Dobbs says.

So, Howard explains. “We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she has given us.”


Here’s a problem

Mine tailings, created as ore is crushed, ground and treated to extract the metals or minerals held within, are typically a liquid slurry of fine rock particles suspended in water. They are a rich and toxic soup of minerals and chemicals which must be stored and managed, forever. Each year the international mining industry generates over 12.7 billion tons of mine tailings.

Things can go wrong

The Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado was abandoned in 1923. Ninety-two years later, in 2015, EPA contractors ruptured a tailings dam at the mine releasing 3-million gallons of mine wastewater and tailings carrying cadmium, lead, arsenic, beryllium, zinc, iron and copper into Cement Creek and then the Animas River and finally, into the San Juan River. The water turned the color of Tang. Fish died. The spill’s effect was felt in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation. The immediate area of the mine would become a Superfund cleanup site and tens of millions of dollars would be paid out in various lawsuits.

There are at least 230 inactive mines in Colorado alone. The overall contaminated water discharge of these mines is on par with one Gold King Mine disaster occurring every two days.

The Gold King Mine event pales in comparison to the 2019 Brumadinho Dam disaster in Brazil where the catastrophic failure of an iron ore tailings storage facility released more than 11.7 million cubic meters of toxic mud, resulting in widespread environmental destruction, 259 deaths and 11 missing persons. It was the second such mine tailings catastrophe for the same company in three years.

Post-Brumadinho, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) co-convened the Global Tailings Review to establish an international standard for the safer management of tailings storage facilities. The Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management is the result.

To be compliant with the Standard, operators must use spe­ci­fied measures to prevent the catastrophic failure of tailings facilities and to implement best practices in planning, design, construction, operation, maintenance, monitoring, closure and post closure activities.

Operators must have zero tolerance for human fatalities and strive for zero harm to people and the environment from the earliest phases of project conception.

While this is an obvious ESG issue for the mining industry, it’s is also a financial red flag. Tailings storage represents a significant cost as well as an ongoing environmental and social liability for mining companies, their lenders and investors. And the cost is only going to go up as responsible management practices become more stringent.

Right now, there are 8,500 or so active, inactive and closed tailings storage facilities throughout the world. The collective footprint exceeds 280 billion metric tons. The estimated value of precious, critical and strategic metals contained within those sites is thought to exceed US$3.4 trillion, suggesting opportunity.

What you don’t know can hurt you

Any entity – any corporation or financial institution or nation – either considering mining or currently involved in mining, must have the best possible mine tailings analysis at hand or run the risk of environmental, social, and fiscal disaster.

A mine tailings analysis both monitors and identifies the residual minerals and chemicals present in the waste material from a mining operation. Laconic does this by deploying sensors, surveys, and sampling teams to collect in-situ data which establishes a baseline for ongoing monitoring and reporting purposes.

Laconic’s Environmental Intelligence platform, SADAR™, collects and evaluates massive amounts of data to provide clients with a robust monitoring, measuring, and reporting solution for mine tailings. SADAR-generated analysis and insights provides a comprehensive and accurate understanding of the physical composition of tailings, as well as the potential impacts of mining operations on the environment and human health. By leveraging its expertise and SADAR technology, Laconic can help clients identify and address potential risks associated with tailings management.

SADAR formulates possibilities, predicts outcomes and helps eliminate costly mistakes.

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