Golder Associates is well known for its environmental work, water studies, resource estimates and tailings design in the minerals sector.
Golder Associates Africa managing director Fred Sutherland says that a lot of the work in the minerals sector declined in 2009. “During the first three quarters of last year we were undertaking previously awarded projects, with some notable feasibility and EIA studies,” he says. “These projects were progressively completed at the end of 2009 and the nature of the work available started to change. We have seen numerous small studies being undertaken.”
The company has a large résumé of customers in the minerals sector including Sasol, Eskom, Anglo American and BHP Billiton. It sees itself involved in mining projects from the very beginning, starting with specialist studies at the conceptual design phase all the way through to mine closure plans.
Golder Associates has offices in Ghana, Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa, and it is looking to open an office in the DRC. “We are looking at a lot of proposals for new work all over Africa, more so than we are finding in South Africa.”
One of the trends Sutherland has observed over the past half decade to decade is the shift in focus from South Africa to the rest of Africa in certain areas. “South Africa, whose mining industry is well over a 100 years old, is in a different space, and mine closure planning is an important issue here.
“We are seeing a lot of closure, clean up and retreatment related work in South Africa.” This correlates with a focus on surface tailings treatment of old gold dumps and the cleanup of old operations including mine water management.
There are a lot of historical operations whose owners have long since ceased to exist, examples being old mines in KwaZulu-Natal where the state has to step in to deal with these sites. Current mining legislation is aimed at avoiding such expenses for the state in the future, by calling for all mines to have their mine closure plans in place upfront including the funding to undertake this.
Following the introduction of such legislation in the late 1990s, Golder specialist in the field of mine closure and financial assessments Frank Wimberley says the group has entered into an alliance with financial services and insurance company Old Mutual to optimise mine closure funds. The initiative is a first for South Africa.
Effectively, the financial provision for planned closure is a combination of a trust fund and a cash type fund, and Old Mutal and Golder have been exploring options to maximise the value and growth of these funds within the context of the existing laws. A way in which such funds could grow and use their surpluses to cover their future capital requirements is through the judicious use of higher yielding investment classes, such as equity.
Another major trend that Sutherland has observed evolving over the past decade is the stronger focus on water management and water treatment issues in South Africa, as legislation has been tightened.
A lot of scepticism has been expressed regarding the viability of numerous large projects in the Waterberg and Sutherland has a more positive view. The opening up of the Waterberg is currently a focal point of South Africa’s minerals sector and Sutherland says that if the water management and planning is done in the right way, projects there can be viable. “After all, Johannesburg itself is not near any major water sources and look what has evolved here. If the engineering is done properly it can happen in the Waterberg. It makes sense in South Africa to locate industry where the resources lie,” he says.
In general, in water management Sutherland says that a lot has been done over the past two to three years in the country and South Africa has some of the best regulations in the world but the capacity to implement these is a problem. “We try to bridge the gap with clients and try to find solutions that make sense.”
In Golder’s line of work the awareness is strong as to how skills availability could be a limiting factor in the development of projects once the industry picks up again. “Over the past three years we ran like crazy, at least until the second half of 2009. But the view is that from a skills perspective the South African mining industry will once again be in dire straits. Golder has the advantage that we are part of an international group with some 7,000 people, and we can tap into this huge resource base.”
In 2002 Golder took over Wates, Meiring and Barnard, an independent South African consulting group. “With access to the larger global group we were able to bid for larger projects,” Sutherland says. Golder Africa has also been able to add its own areas of expertise to the greater group. The company is home to one of Africa’s leading climate change experts.
The climate change work involves helping companies prepare themselves to deal with future climate change issues and how to react to those challenges. “We interpret the situation in the context of the particular company and offer guidance as to what it needs to do. It is important to take into account that many mining issues are now driven by public perception,” Sutherland says. “The mining industry needs to be proactive and we can help companies understand the issues they have to deal with, and make it easier to understand the technologies available.”
The South African and African Golder group is also strong in the management of social and environmental planning for projects, and its expertise has been sourced to undertake work in places such as Papua New Guinea. Golder’s social team advises and manages the public participation process, a critical process in getting environmental approval for projects. “Communication is a primary issue, and if this is not done the risk of something going wrong is much higher,” Sutherland says. “Any one sticking point, by a small group, or an individual, can make a project fall flat.”
In all, while the pitfalls of the process are well understood, as are the mechanisms for undertaking it, this is not something that can be mastered in theory only; it requires experience on the ground. The process of putting together a social and environmental plan often involves a lot of capacity building and it is time consuming, which makes it hard to predict the exact cost of such a process. It varies from case to case. The time it takes also depends as there are seasonal issues to consider, how much technical work is required and there are consultation issues with interested and affected parties. For a big project the process will not take less than six months and typically takes a year. It calls for a broad skills base, such as exists within a group like Golder, ranging from engineers, geotechnical experts, scientists, environmental experts and sociologists.
Golder has been involved in the relocation of villages in Ghana to accommodate mining. This process included the use of GPS technology to log where each house is, and preparatory work to ensure that accurate information exists as to who existing residents are. Sutherland says that in addition to having such data, one has to make sure the cultural influences are understood. That means sourcing local expertise and getting people who are trusted to interact with villagers. In addition, while a group like Golder can advise and manage the process it requires commitment and buy-in from the mining group as the people in the communities want to speak with and hear from the mining company itself, not an intermediary.
Among other particular strengths Golder Africa adds to the global group is its geochemical team, which is one of the strongest teams of its sort in the group. This team worked with the Canadian team on the GARD guideline to be used globally. The groundwater and surface water team in Africa is also particularly strong, but this tends to be a field where knowledge is localised.
Tailings dam design is another of Golder’s areas of strength. Among the major trends Sutherland identifies in the design of tailings dams in South Africa is for the dams to have a bigger footprint but with fewer of them used.
Sutherland says there is also an increased interest in the use of paste technology for tailings, which reduces the quantity of water used in the tailings dam. This technology has been around a while, but has not been taken up to a large extent. However, with water resource management becoming more important, the use of paste technology will gain more impetus in the future.