In March 2016 a meeting was held as a first step to get like-minded experts together to discuss and consider topics of concern, and to explore novel research avenues to better deal with, handle, store and potentially extract value from tailings materials. The goal of the meeting is to identify research topics and proof-of-concept projects whose results could contribute to developing a broader platform to engage and benefit the industry.
There are many challenges involved in tailings management, and recent events in Canada and Brazil have, in particular, brought some of these challenges to the forefront of the industry, as well as to societal and government concern. The experts and professionals present at this meeting agreed that it is of paramount importance that applied research improves long-term tailings management to provide confidence to public and government perceptions.
Several aspects of tailings management were discussed by the group. It was generally agreed to focus on tailings as materials and not consider issues related to dams or toxicity, per se.
Three main areas were identified as high-priority topics that could provide selected as topic requiring focus: Material Characterization, Tailings Maturation, and Incentives versus Risks.
Materials Characterization encompasses evaluating and understanding the physical, mineralogical and geochemical properties of materials from their identification as ore, through the mining and milling circuit, and as waste rocks and tailings. This ore to pond approach encourages and facilitates continuous knowledge through geology, metallurgy, processing, recovery and environment. It was recommended that a case study be developed at a property where exploration is continuing but where development is also underway which would allow material characterization methods and work-flow benefits and weaknesses to be evaluated.
Tailings Maturation was coined to focus attention on a number of “closure” aspects, specifically about how tailings materials change with age, with an emphasis on densification and cementation with a goal towards stabilization. Consideration to evaluating what tailings character, components or conditions could contribute to densification, self-cementation, and the various technologies that can be utilized to enhance stabilization, the ability for tailings to cement by capturing atmospheric carbon, and the use of microbes in long-term tailings management. The changing nature of tailings as they evolve beyond closure is similarly poorly understood, and understanding these characteristics and related processes are vital to enhancing the long-term stability.
Incentives (tax, financial, etc…) should be provided to companies to consider and implement alternative protocols for handling tailings material to better mitigate the risk involved. The technical and legal guidelines that govern the operating of tailings facilities are rigorous and experimental work that deviates from these guidelines may be too risky for consideration by regulators.
It was agreed that although there may be research groups working on some of these questions, building a larger-scale co-ordinated industry – academic consortium would provide the best avenue to tackle these challenges. Such an initiative is likely to require modest seed support to emphasize the importance and significance of the issues and the opportunities.
Subsequent to this initial meeting, more focused meetings provided scope for two, short, proof-of-concept research projects in the areas of tailings self-cementation and tailings life-cycle; proposals for these topics are being developed to seek seed funding.