You are making these four mine water management mistakes
Unpacking mine water management: A cornerstone of long-term viability and mine value
As the adage goes, “if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” These simple words carry great significance during early water management decisions for long-term mining operations. Without a clear plan you can severely undermine the viability and value of your project. The roots of these problems lie in the feasibility planning stages, where water management is sometimes overlooked. A black box called “water treatment system” is drawn into the mine plan, the impacts of water management strategies on the eventual treatment process are often an afterthought. This strategy typically results in a large, all-encompassing water treatment plant. This approach overlooks potential risks and limits both the mine’s future development flexibility and closure options.
To overcome these challenges, mine developers should adopt an agile mindset and be prepared to adapt to changing conditions throughout the mine’s lifecycle.
After interviewing Dr. Monique Simair, CEO and principal scientist at Maven Water and Environment and Jeffrey Coombes, strategic development manager at Integrated Sustainability, we have developed four tips to help avoid common mistakes and navigate the complexities of mine water management.
1. Let go of centralizing water treatment
Historically, the assumption that an expensive active water treatment system would be enough to handle mine water management was widely accepted. However, this mindset is now widely seen as inadequate. Concerns are beginning to arise around the potential for design mismatch or operational failure of a single system/approach. The industry is beginning to answer through the evolution of decentralized mine water management as a more effective tactic. Decentralized mine water management includes source control, mitigations, and provides contingencies and redundancies throughout the treatment process.
Decentralized mine water management systems treat contaminated water as close to the source as possible. These systems incorporate multiple treatment technologies to minimize the risk of simultaneous failure. This approach considers all sources of water, not only from a perspective of conveyance, but also their chemistry in the context of treatability. Some waters will be more easily treated if maintained separately. Conversely, some waters could become more compliant if blended. Considerations such as these should be part of the overall water management strategy.
By taking a holistic water management approach, mine developers are decreasing the intensity of treatment while reducing chemical usage, greenhouse emissions, and the associated costs. With that said, from a regulatory permitting perspective, there may still be a single discharge point and/or main active treatment system in place prior to discharge. However, the size and costs of this system can be substantially decreased.
To achieve a viable regulatory pathway, mine site planners must combine a comprehensive understanding of mitigation/source control, active treatment technologies, and passive or semi-passive treatment options. While the upfront capital expenditure can sometimes be higher, the operational cost benefits make it a worthwhile investment. Another benefit of this approach is that it can help move site-specific passive treatment technology processes through the technology readiness levels (TRLs) required by some regulatory bodies, which can eventually help decrease closure bonds.
The “decentralization” or “compartmentalization” of the treatment train also establishes flexibility for the duration of the mine’s life cycle. Plug-and-play treatment segments can help respond to changing environmental conditions and site usage, bringing mobile treatment units and rental options into play for periodic treatment cycles or one-off use cases. These can be particularly useful while implementing site-specific semi-passive treatment strategies that are lower in operational costs and GHG emissions but can take time to optimize and permit.
“If you look at a mine life cycle from day one until closure, I have never seen a mine site where one type of water treatment would work for all of it. During early site-planning phases, water management and treatment experts have the responsibility to supply strategic clarity to enable future operational flexibility and lower overall long-term costs.” Dr. Simair explains.
2. Expect obsolescence
During planning, much of the designs are based on models and projections, leading to potential risk of mismatch of a system design and actual needs. Moreover, mine plans often change as expansions of ore bodies are either identified or become economical over time. This mismatch between the predicted and actual conditions can result in obsolescence of the water treatment system design and large associated expenses and delays in production.
As a mine develops over time, the water management plans need to be updated. This is where using flexible treatment systems can yield significant benefit. By planning for obsolescence from the outset, you can minimize design complexity, defer capital costs, and have the capacity to respond to changes in conditions as the mine evolves.
“I often tell clients, the more expensive it is, the less well thought through it probably was,” states Coombes. “Instead of focusing on your problem today, it pays to be a bit more strategic from the outset. With some foresight, you can Lego-block equipment together as your mine develops. This approach avoids needless investment in equipment that will become redundant later in the mine life.”
There is always uncertainty, and this is where owners should ask their mine water management teams about the adaptive management strategy. How can you modify a process as the mine advances or if unexpected results are encountered? Rather than attacking the problem with cash, where can you proactively address uncertainties and mitigate liability?
Dr. Simair elaborates, “We have been brought into situations where regulators had offered to include flexibility in the operating plans, but the previous consultants did not understand the importance of this in the evolution of the mine and water treatment needs. They did what was easy in the moment and it cost a lot in the long run when the system could not be operated as planned and time-consuming permit amendments were needed. It pays to be open-minded and collaborative with your regulators.”
In Ontario, limited operational flexibility (LOF) permit amendments offer the option of modifying treatment systems or the operations of the system such as treating different water sources or using different reagents if there is an appropriate mitigation plan in place. If holding ponds and pump back systems are in place, modifications and enhancements to water treatment systems can be more readily done. This also helps to more rapidly advance and prove up new and emerging technologies and approaches to water treatment.
This tactic highlights the recognition by regulators of the need for redundancy planning to minimize the costs of unexpected subsurface conditions, provide operational capacity when needed, and open opportunities for innovative producers to challenge biases and embrace uncertainty.
3. Codify technology readiness and cultivate feedback
Effective communication and engagement are critical components of successful mining projects, especially when it comes to our most precious resource: water. In British Columbia, TRL scale has recently been matched to water treatment and associated permitting for major mines in the province. Although technologies may already be applied at other mine sites, site-specific considerations often result in some optimizations and mitigations needing to take place before the system can be permitted for a different mine site. Selected water treatment technologies must have the TRL identified and then advanced to an appropriate stage to obtain a license.
A communication plan must also be developed and followed while advancing the technology to implementation. This process is especially relevant for passive and semi-passive treatment systems, where a wide range of site-specific factors must be addressed through design compared to active treatment systems. To overcome this challenge, it is essential to increase the TRL as quickly as possible through phased pilot testing.
However, a communication plan alone does not always correlate to effective engagement. Involving local stakeholders and rightsholders in the decision-making process at an early stage offers a unique opportunity to gather opinions and ensure the selected approach aligns with an agreed upon definition of success.
Coombes states, “Clear and transparent communication amongst all parties is crucial to avoid any misunderstandings through the development of a project. Misalignment in the goals and definitions of successful water treatment is one of the primary reasons for permit denial in mining projects. Delays can be prevented with a well-thought-out communication and technical strategy.”
Comparing provincial regulatory bodies across the country provides insights into the evolving regulatory process. For instance, Ontario has the LOF permit amendments that enable technology to be rapidly tested and advanced to new applications. On the other hand, assigning TRLs to every water treatment technology proposed for a project is a useful tool in the B.C. approval process. It provides opportunity for engagement and discussion around risks and information gaps as well as timelines for advancing a technology through to full implementation at that specific site.
Incorporating TRLs, using risk identification and mitigation strategies, and maintaining clear and transparent communication are key strategies to avoid foreseeable roadblocks and simplify the permitting process.
4. Focus on what you do best
Accountability and flexibility are key elements of a mine water management strategy, but they can be difficult to achieve when focussed on developing and producing a resource. With goals of simplicity, many have made the mistake of engaging solely with massive “one stop shop” consulting and engineering firms or equipment vendors. “One-size-fits-all rarely turns out well for clothing. It does not work well in managing and treating contaminated water,” Dr. Simair explained.
It can be hard to know whether a water management and treatment strategy is being developed in the necessary site-specific way. It may be an off-the-shelf or cookie-cutter design being repackaged. This approach is unlikely to meet your project’s evolving water treatment needs, highlighting the importance of your mine water treatment team being technology agnostic. You should be confident that your team is recommending fit-for-purpose for your site without a motivation of selling their own equipment or reagents.
Progressive mine developers and operators are turning to specialist mine water management and treatment teams as a solution to this problem. Water specialist groups offer access to professionals that have dedicated their entire careers to understanding the challenges associated with water, making them better equipped to handle complex and rapidly changing water management issues. Are your consultants just there for the conceptual design, or will they be accountable through implementation and operations?
When consulting with First Nations and regulatory bodies, transparency, accountability, and trust capital become even more important. These groups want to know that the water team they are working with is reputable and has the necessary expertise to handle their water related concerns for the duration of the project.
Your consultants should function as an extension of your team in achieving a successful project. When waste management and mine closure plans are required during the permitting stage, finding a partner that has considered the full-term impacts of the mine life cycle on water treatment is crucial.
By partnering with the right specialist mine water management company, operators can be confident that they are working with a team that is transparent, accountable, and focused on delivering the best possible results. This strategy can help to build trust and credibility with regulatory bodies and stakeholders.
A path forward
The key to ensuring effectiveness is to make sure that your water management and treatment plan is flexible enough to adapt to changes as they occur. This flexibility requires designers to consider a wide range of variables when planning your mine water management and treatment approach, from the impacts of climate change to changes in regulations. While resource grades used to be the key to finding investors for projects, the new reality is whether a project is likely to achieve regulatory permits and social license to operate now plays a huge role in investment decisions.