Simon Barry
Mining companies need to be able to mitigate all of the risks to their operational and social environment to as low as reasonably practical Image: 123rf.com

Recent disasters such as Vale’s Brumadinho tailings dam collapse in Brazil have focused attention on the mining industry like never before.

By charging the CEO of Vale with 250 counts of murder, the Brazilian government has directly challenged mining companies both to reduce the risks from their operations, and to be seen to do so.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 7, 2020
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They are not alone. There is also a significant effect on how investment and raising capital will be viewed in the future.

The mood music of this year’s Mining Indaba in Cape Town was clearly tailings management and environmental, social, and governance (ESG), with much activity in the institutional and consultancy space directed towards these areas.

Listen: Webinar: Investing in safe & sustainable tailings management

These institutions include The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) with its Global Tailings Review, and the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM), which has convened its own tailings oversight committee. Moreover, there are an increasing number of technical solutions being offered to address the ‘tailings problem’.

However, this approach often focuses on tailings as an isolated problem, rather than approaching it in the overall context of managing water and associated risks – using a proper risk-based approach.

The requirement – the why?

Simply put, a mine needs to be able to mitigate all of the risks to its operational and social environment to as low as reasonably practical. This is most efficiently done by applying the risk-based approach that follows the guidelines set in ISO 31000 and using other relevant ISO standards as appropriate.

In addition to this, there are a number of other risk guidelines that are increasingly required, such as the Equator Principles and the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards.

It is worth noting that the guiding principle of ISO 31000 is ‘the creation and protection of value’. It should not be viewed as just an onerous process, but rather something that is worth following for its own sake.

The key element of any risk management is real-time situational awareness based upon ground truth and the ability to influence an outcome, in order to reduce that risk.

This situational awareness is critical in risk management, but it is also very useful in routine operational management. Failure to take care of the environment and the community can affect a company’s social licence to operate.

Failure to exercise good governance can affect both the legal licence to operate and relationships with shareholders and providers of capital. Governments, communities and investors want to see transparency and proof of good practice and risk reduction.

The approach – the how?

There are choices, and the development of new technologies makes them broader. One approach is to look at a narrow area of what may be considered as the pressing issue, the other is to take a holistic approach and work towards an integrated solution that is cost effective and adds value. This article argues for the latter.

Most tailings disasters are actually ESG disasters. The consequences for the operator have been shown above and to them can be added: legal action against those responsible, and also increased difficulty in raising capital through institutions that are starting to demand transparent compliance with ethical standards, and evidence that it is taking place on a continuous basis; again strengthening the requirement for ground truth.

The Risk Management approach coordinates activity to determine and implement controls to reduce or remove the full range of risks. They are often connected, so a silo type approach is usually going to be inefficient in terms of both cost and process.

The process – the detail

The first step is identifying the real risks and compiling a comprehensive risk register. This is where ‘context’ comes in and it has to be applied to each operation, and cover it comprehensively.

It is this process that must be owned by the operation because the risks are theirs. From the evaluation of each risk in context comes the identification of those critical information requirements that will enable an informed solution to be defined, a process to be established and the whole process line to be owned by the most appropriate person in management. Regular review and oversight are the critical elements once an effective system has been instituted.

The integrated approach

Tailings should actually be addressed as part of overall water management, as water is the major risk to mining operations beyond just tailings. It requires effective management just to make the operation work cost-effectively.

While the tailings risk is unlikely to affect the actual mining effort; a collapsed tailings dam can destroy the mine’s value as well as a company’s reputation and licence to operate. Rather than look at tailings in isolation it actually makes more sense to include it as part of water management.

The process is similar as the information requirements will differ in terms of what needs to be collected, but the processing of the data can be rationalised across a comprehensive system.

Artificial Intelligence and Robotics

These technologies are game changers and make an integrated risk approach easier to achieve. They have the ability to both enhance resilience and manage and act upon data more efficiently than humans.

Digital workers can automate many of the tasks and conduct activities, which includes making decisions and escalating issues, where these are rules based – ‘if the data says this then do that’.

The bots can send alerts to the human operator for them to action. Artificial intelligence (AI) means many things. In the case of mines, AI (machine learning) can process data to learn things, make predictions, spot trends and tell whoever needs to know details that may not be apparent based on their experience/ intuition alone.

A single digital operations room can monitor activities for any number of mines, providing a reliable, resilient and low cost service (the bots will always turn-up, work 24×7, do not get tired or sloppy, are accurate and do not act malevolently) that works remotely and very cost-effectively to support any mining operation, anywhere.

One possible solution – an example

An open pit mine in sub-Saharan Africa is operating in a jurisdiction where relations are tense, there is artisanal mining and water is always an issue.

The tailings dam seems sound for the moment but may become an issue in the years to come. Communities live downstream from both the pit and tailings dam, and allegations of pollution are routine.

The risk register process raises the requirement for information about water, and associated geology, from various sources. For the pit, the requirement is to know when failure may occur in time to take preventative action, through the measurement of pore pressure.

Pore pressure monitoring is an accurate method to measure the weight of water in a slope and enables early intervention to delay or prevent failure. Sensors exist to detect this.

For the tailings dam the requirement could be warning of movement in any of the X, Y or Z axes (it could also be pore pressure if desired). All these sensors collect data, which must be processed in order to produce an effect. This effect can be a validated procedure executed by a trained human, or an automated response from a robot. The connectivity is shown below.

Value add

The process outlined above can be enhanced and adapted to include the sensing of, and action on, any risk related information requirements. Its resilience can be verified by robotic oversight that will provide confidence in its reliability.

The system would also be structured to remove any single point of failure. Operations can be monitored in real-time at board level on the other side of the world.

In addition, more routine aspects of efficient management such as environmental air and water quality, personnel on site, HSE and security can be monitored using this system. In the above example, it would enable oversight of the artisanal miners and compliance with ESG concerns in a verifiable way.

In conclusion

An integrated risk-based approach, following well-established international guidelines, can follow the principle of ‘the creation and protection of value’ through an effective process of risk management.

That process can also address ESG issues and provide credible transparency to all key stakeholders, regardless of location. Finally, the potential afforded by AI and Robotics enhances the resilience of such a system.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Simon Barry, is a lead consultant: risk and standards, at The Advisory Group. Barry holds a MSc in Risk Management from the University of Leicester, is a specialist member of the UK Institute of Risk Management and a ISO 9001 lead auditor.

He has worked in mining and associated activities across sub-Saharan Africa since 2008, as well as in a number of high-risk locations. With extensive experience in aviation, logistics and management development he is a firm proponent of the team-based integrated approach to problem solving, addressing the hard questions early.

Prior to 2004 he spent 32 years in the British Army’s Parachute Regiment where he operated in many demanding roles worldwide, within a variety of cultures and environments.