Articles for November 2015

36. Fluid Tailings – Time to Kick The Habit?

It’s been awhile since my last blog article.   Work and other commitments seem to get in the way.
Smoking… we constantly hear about the negative effects of it.  We all know of people that have died due to lung cancer or other smoking related causes.  However we probably also know of people that have smoked their entire lives yet lived into their eighties.  Regardless of that, there still is a push to get people to kick the smoking habit because it is better for them and their families.  Short term pain for long term gain.
Let’s compare all of that with the concept of fluid tailings storage.
Tailings…those of us in the mining industry constantly hear about the negative effects tailings storage.  We know of numerous mines that have had failures resulting in fatalities and catastrophic damage.  However we also know of many mines that have used fluid tailings their entire operating lives without any incidents.  Given the recent Samarco tailings failure, for me the question has now become whether the mining industry should kick the habit of fluid tailings storage despite no failure in many circumstances.
Quitting smoking requires real effort, some pain, a change in lifestyle, and an overall commitment to quit.   It isn’t easy but generally pays off in the long run when you speak with those who have already quit.  Similarly for the mining industry, moving away from fluid tailings storage requires real effort, some pain, a change in operating style, and an overall commitment to quit.  It wouldn’t be easy but might pay off in the long run by avoiding major tailings incidents, less negative press, and fewer environmental permitting issues.  No longer would the consultants and regulators be disputing factors of safety of 1.3 versus 1.5, when they could be discussing factors of safety of 5 or 10.
Just as quitting smoking brings relief to oneself and family, quitting fluid tailings storage may bring relief to stakeholders, shareholders, regulators, and mine management.  They can all sleep better at night knowing there isn’t a large mass of fluid being restrained simply by a rockfill dam at a factor of safety of 1.5.  Engineers say they can design dams that if built properly will be stable for the long term, and I tend to agree with this statement.  However that is no guarantee for all tailings dams, the proof of which is major incident we seem to see regularly.
My bottom line is that no one wants to sit downwind of a smoker and no one wants to live downstream of a tailings dam.  Perhaps it is time for the mining industry to kick the habit of using fluid tailings storage, regardless of cost and discomfort that it causes. Short term pain for long term gain.