Articles for July 2015

32. Using Sand to Build Roads

geogrids
Several years ago I did some geotechnical consulting for BHP’s bauxite mining projects along the north coast of Suriname.  The mines were located in swampy terrain, overlain by very soft clays.   The picture below shows the typical landscape when crossing a swamp.  Haul roads were needed to access the small satellite bauxite pits, which were spread several kilometres apart.
Sand road across swamp

Suriname swamp road for mine

Where haul road construction was concerned, there were no nearby gravel pits or road aggregate supplies but there were significant amounts of fine sand on the high ground “islands” in the swamp.  Road building mainly relied on end dumping truck loads of sand, allowing it to settle and sink into the swamp, and then continue adding more sand until the settling process stopped.  This resulted in high cost roads and very slow progress in construction.  Periodic rainfalls, particularly in wet season, would cause havoc with the trafficability on the fine sands.

Swamp vegetation to the rescue

backhoe on soft clays
How soft were the swamps clays?  See the photo to the right.
Where there was significant swamp vegetation (like in the photo above), it would be buried by the fill, helping to form a mat.  This supported the road fill and minimized the sand losses into the sub-grade.  However in some parts of the swamp the vegetation was minimal and therefore sand settlement losses could be high.
Geotextiles were applied in some areas, using a geogrid.  These were successful although large amounts of sand were still required as the entire road would compress the underlying clay.
Once a road was built, the next issue was the trafficability on the fine sand surface, especially after rains.  The sand would rut and require constant grading and repair.
Final road capping would consist of laterite when available.  Laterite is a high iron off-grade bauxite that could be compacted to form a hard surface but would still degrade and get slippery when wet. If coarse aggregate had been available locally, road performance would have been much better but one had to work with what was available.

Geo-cells would have helped

Geocell

A few years later I saw a video about a geo-cell solution for building roads with sand only.   The website is The PRS-Neoweb™ Cellular Confinement System (www.prs-med.com).  I think there are other similar geotextiles available but this is one that is well described on their website.   Sand is placed into the geoweb, which eventually forms a stiffer layer.  I assume that one could place the sand using mobile equipment or by hydraulically pumping coarse sand as a slurry.
In hindsight, I would have liked the opportunity to test the geo-cell system in the swamps of Suriname.  Potentially it would have been a good solution to prevent both sand losses and create a more trafficable surface.
I’m not certain if the best location for the geo-cell would have been along the sub-base of the road to support the sand load or near the surface to help create a more trafficable surface. Maybe it would have been beneficial in both locations.
Building a road over a swamp in South America is somewhat similar to building a road out onto a tailings pond.  Possibly the geo-cell would have application there too.

Use Hydraulic Sand

Another large earthwork project we undertook in Suriname was building a dragline walkway across a swamp.   The walkway was 4 km long, 30 m wide and about 2 m thick. That requires a lot of fill.   We built this road using hydraulic sand.  Boskalis, a Dutch dredging company, collect sand from the bottom of the Suriname River, barged it to a site about 5 km from the walkway, and then pumped the sand to the construction site.
The hydraulic sand was discharged between two bunds where it quickly settled out.  It was somewhat similar to a tailings disposal operation.  Placing the sand this way was low cost and didn’t require trucks driving out onto the swamp.  It also advanced the road with a very shallow front face, avoiding slumping failures or mudwaves ahead of the advance.   Softer parts of the walkway route also incorporated geotextiles.
Unique operating procedures may be required when building roads over swamps due to the unstable conditions one may encounter.

Conclusion

Geotextiles have many applications in the mining industry.  There can be significant up-front costs to purchase and install them but don’t let that scare you away.   The savings may been seen down the line. They are definitely worth a look.
Share

31. Meetups and Mining Millennials

mining millenials
Over the last year I have had many encounters with the Toronto tech start-up community.  I have noticed some similarities with the junior mining industry but some differences also.
The tech start-up model is similar to the junior mining business model as it relates to early stage funding followed by additional financing rounds.  One obvious difference is that mining mainly uses the public financing route (IPO’s) while the tech industry relies on private equity venture capital (VC’s).
There are also some less obvious differences.
Generally the tech industry is young, vibrant, technology-savvy, and applies the latest in social technology to collaborate.  The mining industry seems to be lagging behind on many of these aspects.
The following article will describe a few of my observations. As you read through this, ask yourself “Should the mining industry be doing these things?”

Tech Meetups and Networking

My first experience with the tech industry was associated with the many after-hours networking meetings called “meetups”.  They are held weeknights from 6 to 9 pm  and consist of guest speakers, expert panels, and for general networking purposes.   Often guest speakers will describe their learnings in starting new companies and failures they had along the way.
The meetups may also provide “how-to” advice for techniques like Google Analytics, Facebook advertising, Google Adwords, email marketing, etc.).
Attending these meetups is usually free.  They are typically held after hours at different tech company offices and they often provide free beer and pizza. One can see the entire industry working together for the betterment of the industry.

How to Organize Meetups

Scheduling of meetups is done via the online software platforms Meetup or eventbrite.  Both of  these work well for announcing the meeting notice and tracking signups and attendees.
By the way, meetups are not only tech-related; they are also held for interest groups for hiking, theatre, writing, yoga, business marketing, etc.  The platforms provide a good way to manage communities.  Unfortunately here in Toronto there are no geology or mining related meetups so the mining industry may be missing out on a good way to build a more collaborative community.
The mining industry does have some local meetings, as far as I know there are mainly three after-hour mining events.  The CIM has a monthly luncheon with a cost of $50-$65 (not exactly inclusive to everybody).   There is a Toronto Geological Discussion Group that holds monthly meetings and seems to be comprised of the older geologist demographic.  The third event is Mining 4 Beer, which a small group that meets intermittently at a local bar.  These few events limit the amount of buzz for those working in the mining industry.  There are a lot of mining companies here with a lot of mining people but not a lot of vibrancy.

Where to hold an event

Most of the tech meetups are held in local tech offices.  These offices are great. They have an open concept, pool tables, ping pong, video games, fully stocked kitchen. Who wouldn’t want to work there?
The last time I was in the offices of a large engineering firm I felt like a lab rat in a cubical maze.   I’m not saying engineering offices can switch to a tech office layout, but more enjoyment of the office environment might help draw more people to the mining industry.
Perhaps it’s easier to have a positive work attitude when money is being thrown at you (as is happening in the tech world) rather than having to scratch and claw for funds like mining must do right now.   However I suggest if one wants more smart young people to come into the industry then one needs to adapt.  This means more than just buying the latest 3D geological software.  It means creating an environment that people want to work in.
In the late 1990’s I was working in the Diavik  engineering office in Calgary.  They provided a unique office layout whereby everyone had an “office” but no front wall on the office so you couldn’t shut yourself in.  There were numerous map layout tables scattered throughout the office to purposely foster discussion among the team.
A similar type philosophy is used by Apple in their office layout design where even the kitchen placement has a purpose.  People should mingle and run into one another to promote conversation.  Discussion is good. Camping out in an office is not good.

Keep it short and to the point

Another thing I noticed with the tech industry is that when start-up tech companies are given an opportunity to tell their story, typically they only have 5 to 10 minutes to pitch.  No long winded thirty page PowerPoint presentation to explain what they are doing.
The tech industry is also big on the “elevator pitch”, a one minute verbal summary of what they are doing.  The tech people are taught to be concise.  If you can’t explain it in plain language in one minute then it’s too complicated.
For comparison, many mining investor presentations can be long, highly technical, and tailored to other technical people and not the average person.   One must ask who is the real target audience for those presentations?

Communication methods

The tech industry relies a lot on remote workers.   They might be overseas or spread around Canada. For communication and collaboration, they use various online systems such as Slack, Google Hangout, Trello.  No more  long email threads with five people cc’d on each email.   Slack uses a chatting approach, similar to text messaging, which makes it easier to follow the conversation and share files.
Can the mining industry be taught to use something new like Slack?  I don’t see a problem with that as long as one honestly wants to learn it. It’s really not that complicated.
For interest, another blog provides some more discussion on online collaboration software “Online Collaboration and Management Tools“.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that I can see a great difference in the attitude and atmosphere in the tech industry compared to the mining industry.  The junior mining game was the precursor for the tech start-up industry but has not kept pace with evolving work techniques.
As senior personnel retire from mining, the loss of this mining experience will be felt.  However the new ideas that may follow could be a positive outcome.
Share

30. Mining Takeovers – Should Governments Be (Heavily) Involved?

Mine acquisition
I have seen some on-line discussions about whether governments should be regulating corporate takeovers, some of which may be outside their own borders. The fear from some groups is that mine assets may be acquired by less than desirable acquirers.
One specific example that I have seen is related to the 2015 disposition of foreign resource assets by both Barrick and Ivanhoe to Zijin, a Chinese company.  I don’t know much about Zijin, other than having heard Norway’s government directed its $790 billion oil fund to sell holdings in some companies because of their environmental performance. Zijin was one of these companies.
In light of the Norway decision, some groups are questioning whether Zijin should be allowed to buy mining assets currently owned by Canadian or American companies.

Its a balancing act

It appears that some groups would like their governments to step in and prevent a company from selling their mining assets to another company that may have a poor reputation or limited financial capacity. The fear is the new company would operate in a non-sustainable manner and ignore local environmental rules.
Government sanctioning of deals gets tricky in that how do they define which companies have poor reputations and which don’t.  Also how can they dictate to the shareholders of a company, possibly nearing bankruptcy, that they cannot sell their assets to a certain interested party?
Governments have stepped in and blocked acquisitions in the past but these were mainly related to deals involving antitrust issues or technology of national interest.
It will be interesting to see whether the idea of governments sanctioning the acceptability of acquirers in the mining industry will gain traction.
It may be an overstep for the government of one country to block the acquisition of a foreign property when the owner may not have the capability to develop the project while the acquirer does.
The foreign government may want to see their own resources  developed but another government may be hindering that by blocking transfer of ownership.
The last thing we want are more country-to-country disputes. I presume the only option in this case is to revoke the mineral concessions and assign them to someone willing to develop them.  One company will lose an asset, which creates new issues related to compensation.  It also harms the reputation of that country as a place to invest in.  Unfortunately it had no choice if a foreign government was getting in the way.

Conclusion

The bottom line is whether the government of one country have the veto rights to prevent development in another country?  Does the government of one country have the right to decide the environmental standards in another via prevention of an asset sale?
This will be an interesting issue to continue to watch in the future.
Share

29. New Mining Software and 43-101 Legal Issues

43-101 issues
NI 43-101 puts a fair amount of legal liability on the Qualified Person preparing a resource or reserve estimate.  The QP is to stand behind the accuracy of their work and take legal responsibility for it.
Every so often some new mining software comes along and I often wonder what are the risks in using it? Some examples of new mining software that I have heard about (but not personally used) nor have seen mentioned in any 43-101 studies are SimSched, the ThreeDify’s software packages, and Bentley.

Is the software doing everything correctly?

Given that as a QP I am legally responsible for my work, I am  bit apprehensive about how I can be assured the new software will provide reliable and accurate results for which I accept legal liability.  The last thing I would want to do is issue a public technical report which is found to be in error due to a software bug.
Irrespective of 43-101, if you are working at a mining operation the last thing you want to do is present management with an incorrect reserve, pit design, or production plan.
If you are a consultant, how agreeable will your client be when you tell him that his study was done using a novel software package and not one of the industry standard packages?
I recall working with a major mining company and there was a reluctance to adopt any new software that was unproven and not an industry standard.  The company had no issue with buying the software nor paying the annual maintenance fees for the license. the concern was the risk in using it.

What if you have a limited budget?

How do you feel about new software if you are a mining company or consultant with a limited budget?   The new software may be cheaper, may appear to be be great, and may be a technological improvement all at a lower cost.  However the software risk still remains.   There is no guarantee that all software output is correct simply because it comes from a computer.
As a QP, I suggest the onus is on the software developers to demonstrate that they can produce reliable and comparable results under all conditions.  They need to convince future users that their software is accurate.
Perhaps over time the new software will gain wider adoption.  We may see more 43-101 reports that use it and hence it will get more overall acceptance.
When developing a new market for new software is it a better to foster more consultant adoption or more mining company adoption?
Will mining companies use the software if their consultants are using it, or will consultants use it if more companies adopt it?  It’s an interesting discussion that new software vendors must deal with in trying to grow their market share.
Share