What is one thing that we constantly hear about negatively yet we continue to do it (although we know it can be bad for us)? Is that thing smoking or is it fluid tailings storage? Can we break either of these habits?
Short term pain for long term gain.
Those of us in the mining industry constantly hear from stakeholders about the negative impacts of fluid tailings storage. By “fluid” I mean conventional tailings that can liquify and flow great distances. We know of numerous mines that have had failures, resulting in fatalities and catastrophic damage. Check out the horrific example video below. It appears some people were walking or driving mid-way up the dam face.
We also know of many mines that have used fluid tailings their entire operating lives without any incidents. Therefore some say it is fine to continue doing that.
The question for me has become whether the mining industry should kick the habit of fluid tailings storage even though not every dam has failed.
Quitting isn’t easy
Quitting smoking takes real effort, some pain, maybe a change in lifestyle, but most importantly an overall commitment to quit. It isn’t easy but pays off in the long run.
The same holds for fluid tailings storage.
Moving away from conventional tailings storage requires real effort, some pain, a change in operating style, and a commitment to quit. It won’t be easy but will pay off in the long run by avoiding major tailings incidents, less negative press, and fewer environmental permitting issues. No longer will consultants and regulators be disputing factors of safety of 1.2 versus 1.5, when they could be discussing factors of safety of 5 versus 10.
Quitting fluid tailings storage may bring relief to stakeholders, shareholders, regulators, and mine management. They’ll all sleep better at night knowing there isn’t a large mass of fluid being restrained simply by a dam at a factor of safety of 1.5. Engineers say they can design dams that will be stable for perpetuity. Even if one agrees with that statement, that is still no guarantee that failures won’t happen somewhere.
The 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 fluid tailings storage, regardless of the cost and discomfort. Short term pain for long term gain.
In another blog post I have discussed how tailings storage always require a tradeoff between cost and risk. Normally lower cost options present high risks, and vice versa. How much risk is acceptable to a company or to the public? You can read that post at this link “Tailings Disposal Method Risk“.