Operators of tailings facilities lag behind the rest of the mining industry in technology adoption, despite some recent progress, according to Robin Bolton, Executive: Sustainability at IsoMetrix.
"I don't think those responsible for tailings management are embracing technology to the extent they should be." Bolton said in an interview for Mining Journal and Mining Magazine's 2021 Tailings Program.
"However," he said "things have changed since the publishing of the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management in 2020. That's certainly shaken the industry up a bit in terms of the attention tailings dams have to be given. It does highlight where, in my view, technology can play a useful part."
IsoMetrix is a leading developer of integrated risk management software for mining companies and other risk-oriented industries such as oil and gas, renewables, transport and logistics, and waste services. Its solutions for the mining industry cover related areas such as tailings, environmental and carbon management, HSE management, ESG reporting, enterprise risk, compliance, stakeholder engagement, resettlement and socio-economic development.
According to Bolton, a key challenge associated with many tailings facilities is their remoteness, which makes it difficult to collect data in-person.
"Previously - or even perhaps to this day - if someone went to a site and gathered information, it would take several days until a decision-maker might see that information, and by that time it might be too late." he said.
Another related challenge is that policies from a corporate level do not always get delivered to individual tailings facilities, with the result that recommended actions are not always implemented, in Bolton's opinion.
Having a tailings management system (TMS) - a recommendation of the Global Industry Standard, and something which IsoMetrix provides - is key to ensuring information flows between the right people in a timely manner.
"Having a TMS means that you know what's happening to the data, what's happening to the audit findings, the details and status of incidents and what's happening to the engineer's recommendations for example. It brings clarity to questions such as ‘Where are they managed? How are they actioned? How are you closing out those actions?' Management systems can bring a lot of efficiencies when it comes to these types of details." he said.
"When data does not conform to the limit or threshold, you can set triggers and notifications so that the right person is made aware of a situation, and they can respond and react a lot quicker than previously. That response time can be cut right down using technology."
Water management was another essential challenge identified by Bolton and other participants in the 2021 Tailings Program. According to Bolton, there is a need not only to monitor the water within the dam, but also the water going into and out of the facility - such as water being discharged into the environment or water being reused for mineral processing.
"There have been advancements in using devices and technology to capture certain measurements, namely flow measurements, water quality measurements, and pressures within a tailings facility. There is a lot of technology available nowadays. However, is it being used extensively at present? I don't think so." Bolton said.
Other available technologies that Bolton said have not been "explored or utilized enough" include devices that can help with air quality, weather information, seismic activities, thermal activity, and other critical indicators around a dam.
"There's definitely technology available. It can be linked up to the Internet of Things (IoT) and provided to any third-party, or the company itself. There's a myriad of ways in which data can be managed, such as using data warehouses for example, and systems can be set up in a way so that only exceptions or certain summaries are sent to the relevant people who want to see the information."
For its part, IsoMetrix offers a tailings management system that helps companies with six key elements of tailings management and governance:
- Accountability, responsibility, and competency;
- Planning and resourcing of critical tasks;
- Risk management including assessing controls and managing monitoring data;
- Change management;
- Emergency preparedness and response; and
- Review and assurance.
According to Bolton, IsoMetrix can alleviate a lot of the pain operators experience in relation to the management of tailings facilities.
For example, "We offer the ability to conduct your inspections and audits and capture the findings. If corrective and preventative actions are needed, we provide the capacity to notify the relevant people and track these actions until closure."
One of the modules contained in the TMS is for emergency procedures. This allows operators to schedule drills and invite attendees.
"As an example, a potential drill could be to see how quickly a community can evacuate from a potential flow path if a tailings dam collapsed. You can run that drill, make observations, capture the findings, and then implement additional controls from those observations to improve." Bolton said.
"Maybe the warning siren did not go off, or maybe people took too long to get out of the way. These are details which you can capture in a system, track and close out. We have dashboards that can show all the data, facilitating a holistic approach to tailings dam management."
IsoMetrix has recently been focusing on aligning its solutions with the Global Tailings Standard. This has seen it introduce modules around change management and training, aspects which IsoMetrix has previous experience in building for other industries.
Looking forward, Bolton said recent discussions with operators have revolved around the integration with other systems, and the import of data into the IsoMetrix TMS.
"There's been a lot of talk about integrations and getting data through IoT devices. That's almost a standard discussion on tailings systems at the moment - how do you handle mass data?" he said.
"It's encouraging because the operators do have devices out there measuring data. The issue is about how do you get that data into one integrated system?"