May 2016


By Ryan Bergen, David Chen, Kelsey Rolfe, Kate Sheridan, Kylie Williams

SME plenary crowd shot
More than 6,300 delegates attended SME’s 2016 conference, which focused on the potential of data analysis | Courtesy of SME

Sorting through the data

Tagged “The future for mining in a data-driven world,” the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME) used the enormous potential that the capture and analysis of data has for the sector to frame its 2016 Conference and Expo.

The event, held at the Phoenix Convention Centre from Feb. 21 to 24, hosted a formidable amount of content in its three days of technical programming. It featured presentations divided between at least 24 different streams each day.

To open proceedings, SME president Steven Gardner threw a spotlight on perhaps the most promising data point of all. “Last year,” he declared to the crowd gathered for the keynote session, “was the best year for mine safety in the United States in history.” The country recorded only 27 mining fatalities in 2015, down from 45 the previous year and eight fewer than the preceding record set in 2009.

Among a series of questions presenters tackled on the topic of data science was how the analysis of the growing collection of mine site data might continue to improve the industry’s safety record by helping to identify practices or trends that can predict safety performance.

Presentations ranged from case studies, such as one from Leonardo Avila of Wenco International Mining Systems, which detailed how fueling dispatch software helped an oil sands mine gain 9,600 hours of haul truck productivity, to more open-ended discussions considering how the work of mine site surveyors, geologists and engineers might be captured for data analysis. A number of presentations referred to “Big Data” in their titles and with them the suggestion that computer science can deliver a new era of safer, more efficient and productive operations.

Speakers, however, were careful to temper the excitement. “The more you automate and algorithmize, the more you need to have a sanity check,” advised Ted Branscombe, manager of innovation and technology for Modular Mining. “With large data sets you will almost always find something that seems significant, but that may not be the case.” Do not undervalue experience and common sense in the data analytics realm, he urged. “You need someone who knows the equipment and processes to judge what matters.”

SME reported more than 6,300 attended the event. Next year’s conference will be held from Feb. 19 to 22 in Denver, Colorado.

– Ryan Bergen

British Columbia to amend Mines Act

Nearly a year and a half after the Mount Polley tailings dam disaster, British Columbia is expanding its power to enforce its mining health and safety rules. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett introduced amendments to the Mines Act in late February that would give his ministry the ability to hand out financial penalties to companies without going through the courts. Currently, the government can only shut down mines or revoke permits of noncompliant companies.

Bennett told CIM Magazine the update would put the mining industry on par with other sectors in the province.

“The Environmental Management Act, the Forest Act, the Oil and Gas Activities Act, they all have administrative penalties,” he said. “It just gives us some flexibility and makes us a bit more nimble to make sure that people are complying.”

The amendment would also allow courts to hand out more severe financial penalties of up to $1 million, and jail terms of up to three years, up from the current maximum of $100,000 or one year in jail.

B.C. is currently reviewing its health and safety code for mining to determine how to implement recommendations made in the reports from the independent Mount Polley investigation panel and B.C. chief mines inspector Al Hoffman.

This is not the first time the province has reviewed the code after a mining accident; the last time the province examined its code was in 2007, after four people died due to the lack of oxygen in a pump shed at the decommissioned Sullivan mine in Kimberley.

Bennett has pledged to implement all of the independent panel’s recommendations. One would require mining companies to demonstrate they had examined all possible tailings options to determine the best possible method for their sites. In the past they only had to present information on the one they chose to build. Another would require all mines with a tailings facility to have an independent review board scrutinize engineering designs.

Karina Briño, president and CEO of the Mining Association of B.C. (MABC) said the industry knew the government has been contemplating changes since December. “We were notified through the release of the chief [mines] inspector’s report after the Mount Polley investigation,” she said.

Briño said the current regulations are already very strict, but the industry wants to be “part of the conversation” about safety and updating the regulations to ensure public confidence in mining.

“We are a mining country, we are a mining jurisdiction here in British Columbia, so it is important to us that we have a good relationship with the general public.”

– David Chen

Mining projects advance in Genome Canada competition

Four proposals to improve the environmental impact of mining by capturing the enormous potential of biological processes have moved on to the next round of a $26-million Genome Canada funding competition.

The next step for the teams – among a total of 21 from various industries – is preparing a final application and presenting it to Genome Canada’s review board. Between 10 and 12 projects will receive funding for up to four years. Final applications are due in mid-April, and Genome Canada will announce the funding recipients in late June. The federally-funded organization’s task is to spark the creation of technologies based on the genetic information that modern science can now easily access.

A team from Université Laval and COREM, including researchers Alain Garnier and Philippe Gagnon, wants to use proteomic tools to find, develop and test new protein-based flotation reagents to replace others that are toxic in water, including xanthate. The project’s total cost would be about $4 million.

Shawn Mansfield and his team at the University of British Columbia, Natural Resources Canada’s forestry centre and Queen’s University want to sequence the genomes of 800 trees to determine what genetic signature might make certain trees particularly suited to rehabilitate mine sites – for example, by sequestering contaminants like heavy metals. Specialized tree breeders could use this information to grow trees specifically to rehabilitate the soil around closed mine sites. “It’s like breeding show dogs,” Mansfield explained. The project, TerraTrees, could cost around $9 million.

With a DNA amplification and detection technique, qPCR, and $10 million, a project called PROAQUA, led by the University of Victoria’s Caren Helbing, could better assess the impact of mine sites on local frog and fish populations. The project could also help companies detect endangered species in the environment by testing water for the species’ DNA, giving mining companies more certainty about their impact on local ecosystems.

Lesley Warren from the University of Toronto would use $4 million to discover how bacteria act in a mine’s wastewater. “Mining sites are rich in terms of bacteria,” she said, but bacteria genetics are poorly understood. Learning more could lead to new treatments or even discovering helpful bacterial impacts.

Industry partners are already interested in the projects. Goldcorp is providing Mansfield with tailings from the Porcupine mine in Timmins, Ontario and the closed Equity mine in British Columbia. Helbing will also be near the Equity site for one of her four case study sites; Imperial Metals will also provide case study sites “to show how it will work in the real world,” Helbing said. Glencore and Hudbay Minerals are among Warren’s backers and will give her team access and samples and serve on the project’s advisory board.

– Kate Sheridan

Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh retires

Jean-Sébastien Jacques
Jacques took a leading role in negotiations with the Mongolian government over the Oyu Tolgoi mine and oversaw delivery of its first copper shipment | Courtesy of Rio Tinto

After three challenging years at the helm of mining giant Rio Tinto, Sam Walsh will soon retire as chief executive officer. He will be replaced by Jean-Sébastien Jacques in July.

Walsh took over the top job at the world’s second-largest mining company from ­­predecessor Tom Albanese in January 2013, shortly after Rio Tinto recorded its first annual loss in decades.

Rio Tinto chairman Jan du Plessis credited Walsh with transforming the business against a volatile economic backdrop. During his time as chief executive, Walsh and his team cut over $6 billion in costs, leaving Rio Tinto in a stronger position than when he took on the role.

“I have been seriously fortunate to lead one of the world’s best companies. After 25 great and enjoyable years with Rio Tinto, now is the right time to pass the reins on to Jean-Sébastien,” Walsh said in a March 17 press release.

The incoming CEO joined Rio Tinto in 2011 after more than 15 years in various aluminum, bauxite and steel industry roles. Jacques quickly proved his worth within Rio Tinto, referred to as a “standout performer” by Walsh, most recently as chief executive of its extensive copper and coal portfolio.

Jacques’ most notable achievement of recent years was his leading role in negotiations with the Mongolian government over the Oyu Tolgoi mine. He oversaw delivery of the first copper shipment from Oyu Tolgoi and the signing of an underground mine development and financing plan in May 2015, paving the way for the further development of the one of the world’s largest known copper and gold deposits.

– Kylie Williams

Ontario court paves the way for Ring of Fire road

A road to the northern Ontario Ring of Fire chromite deposit could be built on top of a mining company’s claims without that company’s consent, according to a Feb. 25 decision from the Ontario Court of Appeal.

The court upheld a decision to allow a numbered company wholly owned by Noront Resources to build a road running north to the Big Daddy chromite deposit in the Ring of Fire if Ontario’s Mining and Lands Commissioner approves it.

The appellate decision affirmed that the road could be built on 108 of Canada Chrome Corporation’s mining claims without the company’s permission.

Canada Chrome Corporation is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Toronto-based KWG Resources, which owns 30 per cent of the Big Daddy project and had laid the chain of claims leading up to the deposit to improve the chances the project advanced. Noront owns the remaining 70 per cent, and is also the largest shareholder in KWG Resources. Noront inherited the lawsuit when it acquired Cliffs Natural Resources’ chromite properties in April 2015.

In the court’s decision Justice George R. Strathy quoted from T.A. Ricard’s The Romance of Mining: “An unprofitable mine is fit only for the [tomb] of a dead mule.” Strathy noted that “the same might be said of an inaccessible mine.”

The court said there was no evidence a road could interfere with future exploration and exploitation on the claims in question, but Maurice Lavigne, vice-president of exploration and development at KWG, said direct mining activities were never intended for those claims. “When we staked those claims, it was for the purpose of building the infrastructure we needed for the mine,” he said. (KWG wanted to build a railroad to its site; according to Lavigne, there is not enough suitable area to support a railroad and a road.)

Big Daddy, however, remains low on Noront’s list of development priorities in the Ring of Fire. The company’s flagship project is the Eagle’s Nest nickel-copper-PGE project in the Ring of Fire. The company is also developing the Black Thor project near the Big Daddy deposit. Noront president and CEO Alan Coutts told CIM Magazine that while the company inherited the suit near the end of the process, they continued it to keep their options open for potential chromite development projects. Coutts said the company’s focus is Eagle’s Nest, which would not require an access corridor through these claims.

The Ontario government committed $1 billion to infrastructure projects in the Ring of Fire in the 2016 budget. So far, the province has spent at least $78 million to prepare communities in the area for development-related opportunities. The federal government has also been involved in the area and collaborated with the provincial authorities to fund a $785,000 study on corridor options for four Matawa First Nations communities. The provincial mining ministry has contributed $23 million.

– K. Sheridan

Bottomless optimism at PDAC

Rod Thomas
PDAC past-president Rod Thomas said this year’s conference was “definitely upbeat” in comparison to the previous year | Courtesy of PDAC

Attendance numbers were down but spirits were high at this year’s annual PDAC conference and trade show. The gathering brought 22,000 people – just a little less than last year’s 23,500 – to Toronto’s Metro Toronto Convention Centre where, despite an ongoing commodities rout, the mood was cautiously optimistic for the future.

“Last year it was pretty downbeat. This year was definitely upbeat, so there is a change in sentiment,” said Rod Thomas, PDAC’s past-president. “I think last year we thought we were at the bottom [of the downturn]; this year we know we’re at the bottom and we get a sense that there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”

Despite a positive outlook among delegates, presenters tended towards gloomier views of the year ahead. Paul Robinson, a director at CRU Group, said current supply cuts will not be enough to restore demand confidence, and he expects miners will continue “digging for victory” in 2016. “We think 2016 will be another difficult year for commodities… driven by weak demand and limited supply cuts,” he said.

Exploration was also top of mind for presenters and attendees. Mark Bristow, CEO of Randgold Resources (see our profile), criticized the industry in a presentation for being “plagued by systemic short-termism” and cutting back on exploration funding. “Exploration is the only sure way of creating value in an extractive industry such as mining,” he said.

Natural Resources Minister James Carr attended the conference with assurances that the government of Canada would assist the industry, highlighting investment in innovation, regulatory stability, engagement with indigenous communities and support for mineral exploration as four government priorities. “All of them are linked by one goal: to fortify the strong and vibrant mining sector we have in Canada,” Carr said during his opening remarks.

This year’s conference also marked the end of Thomas’s two-year term as PDAC president. Robert Schafer, previously the association’s first vice-president, will now step into the role.

“I always have fun doing what I do,” Schafer said of taking over the top job at PDAC. “I feel very challenged, but I’m also feeling pretty comfortable about what I’m about to do, because everybody’s my friend here.”

Next year’s conference will take place from March 5 to 8.

– Kelsey Rolfe

Standards group releases bond efficiency guidelines 

The Global Mining Standards and Guidelines Group (GMSG) took the first step towards standardizing how grinding circuit efficiency is calculated with the publication of its latest guideline in early March. The guideline, “Determining the Bond Efficiency of industrial grinding circuits,” was prepared by the Bond Work Index sub-committee led by Rob McIvor, chief metallurgist of grinding systems at Metcom Technologies.

The guideline is “extremely important” for energy reduction and cost savings in the mining industry, McIvor said.

“About 10 per cent of the cost of producing metal, before it can be processed into something useful, goes into the size reductions of the ores,” he said. “The typical medium-sized plant will spend millions of dollars a year on grinding energy. You need a measure of efficiency; you need to know where you stand. You can’t improve what you don’t measure.”

Efficiency is calculated using the ratio between the optimal amount of energy it takes to break down material, as measured in a lab, and the actual amount of energy it takes a mill to grind it. The standard measurement for grinding energy is called a work index, which is derived from the Bond equation.

While the equation and the way efficiency is mathematically calculated have been used for decades, there have been wide discrepancies as to how lab work is done and how mills are measured. The new guideline aims to standardize those procedures in the industry. McIvor said the next step is to calibrate actual lab tests and create a benchmarking database for the industry to reference.

GMSG will soon publish two additional comminution guidelines: “Methods to survey and sample grinding circuits for determining energy efficiency” and “Morrell Method for determining comminution circuit specific energy and assessing energy utilization efficiency of existing circuits.”

– D. Chen

Exploration geochemistry research at UBC gets a funding boost

Peter Winterburn
UBC researcher Peter Winterburn said the initiative is important because exploration is becoming increasingly difficult | Courtesy of the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UBC

Government funding for an industry-led research program at the University of British Columbia’s Mineral Deposit Research Unit (MDRU) came through late last year. The initiative aims to reinvigorate research in exploration geochemistry, a field that has had very little formal research within Canadian universities and around the globe in recent years.

Half of the $2.5 million the five-year program now has was contributed by mineral testing laboratory AcmeLabs, which was acquired by Bureau Veritas Minerals Laboratories in 2011. NSERC provided the other half late last year after approving the program’s application in June. Research had already begun in the fall of 2014 in anticipation of the federal funding.

UBC researcher Peter Winterburn, who is taking up the position of NSERC/AcmeLabs/Bureau Minerals Industrial Research Chair in Exploration Geochemistry, said the initiative is important because exploration in mining is becoming increasingly difficult.

“One of the big problems is that most outcropping deposits have, by and large, now been found,” he said. “The next set of deposits that we discover will be the ones that are buried under other material.”

Winterburn, who was the global geochemist for Vale prior to joining UBC in 2013, hopes the program will lay a foundation for developing practical methods that can be applied to commercial exploration.

“The intention there is, using geochemistry, we would actually be able to discriminate between [different] types of targets at a fairly early stage and give that drill or no-drill decision much more prominence, and obviously save a lot of money,” he said.

– D. Chen

Federal budget contains money for clean technology, exploration and regulatory reform
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