Catastrophic tailings dam failures have done as much as anything to damage mining’s global brand in recent times. Now experts in the field say addressing a critical technical skills gap must be seen within the industry as an important opportunity for redemption, or profit – or both.
“I think tailings management is the most exciting field right now in mining and civil engineering,” says Colorado School of Mines mining engineering professor Priscilla Nelson.
“It’s a career for the future and it’s going to be around for a long time.
“But it’s urgent that we do something instead of sitting around talking.”
Speaking on a GATE (Global Acceleration of Tailings Expertise) webcast hosted by Australian mining software company K2fly, Nelson was joined on a panel by fellow academic leaders in the field, professors David Williams and Andy Fourie from the University of Queensland and University of Western Australia, respectively, and Colorado State University associate professor Chris Bareither.
Boston Consulting Group global lead for mining analytics, Rohin Wood, provided a “left field” view of proceedings, according to discussion moderator, Sean Helm, K2fly’s general manager industry solutions. The WA-based firm sells a tailings reporting module aligned with the industry’s new Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM) as part of an enterprise SaaS platform.
Helm said at least 17,000 tailings storage facilities holding waste from mines on every continent, producing most types of minerals, created a need for as many as 19,000 engineers. Pressure on the standard of management would rise with this year’s formal observance by many of the world’s largest mining companies of GISTM.
Research showing higher mine production and waste generation rates contributed to a doubling of the number of tailings dam failures in the past 20 years had already put the industry’s performance under an unwanted spotlight.
The scale of carnage, including deaths, caused by tailings dam failures in Brazil and elsewhere has only intensified negative community and political strain.
Yet mining’s unequivocal standing in a mineral and metal-led global energy and transport transition means solutions to its mounting waste storage problems are “shared problems”, Nelson says: “The world needs us to be successful in this.”
As well as engineering professionals, the industry and academia are short teaching and training specialists. On the regulatory side, too, there is a dearth of capable people and, Fourie said, that was just in so-called mature mining economies. The problems would multiply in line with new mine proposals in parts of Africa and South America.
“We have inconsistent regulations,” Nelson says.
“We have regulators that themselves need to be trained. It’s a large problem, and I think that we should think large to really address it; create a program that’s going to be effective, so that five years from now we’re not having the same conversations.”
Helm said: “The gap between what’s available today [trained and competent people] and what we need in order to comply with GISTM, which helps us manage tailings more safely, is huge.”
The senior academics on the call, who have all initiated new industry-backed education and training programs in the past few years – supplementing standard university-sanctioned engineering courses – say some progress has been made since the 2019 Brumadinho disaster in Brazil and the International Council of Mining and Metals’ (ICMM) call for new standards.
“I think there are green shoots,” Williams says.
“Just a few years ago, before Brumadinho in fact, there were virtually no courses available anywhere in tailings.
“We’ve actually come quite a long way.
“We just need to do more.
“Without a steady stream of people with an interest, universities are going to be less inclined to offer courses because they simply won’t be viable.
“The problem [for the industry] is we’re not generating enough of a pipeline to start with.
“I went to a dinner of second year civil engineering students recently and I was just asking around, and not a single one was interested in joining the minerals industry, let alone tailings.”
Fourie agreed on both counts: “Fifteen years ago tailings engineering was kind of the poor cousin of the geotechnical field. We were really stretched to do any kind of field investigation. Clients were not keen to pay for single laboratory tests.
“Now they’re doing the most incredible work and funding it, because the imperative is there. So it is certainly a really exciting field.
“But what is the career path for a young engineer who goes and signs up to become an RTFE [responsible tailings facility engineer]? Where do they go beyond that?
“We had this kind of questioning [previously] with geomechanics engineers; people looking after openpit instabilities and so on. A very technical field, very challenging and probably rewarding, but there was a distinct ceiling. Those people were never advancing further within the mining companies.
“So it’s one thing to attract people, which is tough as we’ve seen, but then do they have a clear career path for moving up that organisation?”
Fourie says university administrators “want to see big classes”.
“They may not be interested in 10 or 12 students,” he says.
“That’s where industry has to help us make the case; to demonstrate that this is not just a three-year program where they train people and that’s the end of it.”
The academic panellists said a much more unified voice was needed within their ranks to accelerate development and application of the best teaching methods and content. They are adamant this should happen across borders and other “siloes”.
“I think we can accelerate this professional development by creating an international platform, maybe even a professional society, that can be a focus for discussion [and] defining the state of practice that will establish the expectations of society for tailings management,” Nelson says.
“We’re responsible for establishing those expectations and I don’t think we’ve done that as a group.”
The large webinar audience heard the major connection needed is the one between those who are loudest at the moment with their concerns, at the professional level, and the mining boards prioritising company spending and policy. Panel members said cases for investment in education and training, teaching resources, research, internships, even new technology initiatives, had to be made but they also needed to be heard.
More collaboration is needed, at all levels, “if the industry accepts that this is a problem of the dimensions that we expect it is”, Nelson says.
“I think there’s a tremendous role for industry here [in] really presenting a way for the universities to be called to work together, much like the way the mining programs in Australia were funded by industry to develop a cohesive curriculum in the 2010s.
“This is something the industry needs to do. It’s very difficult for academia to do it by itself. Our universities are not very accepting of new programs that bubble up from faculty. They like outside groups coming in with great strength and clarity about what is needed.
“And this is what we need.
“We have to make sure that industry is empowered to take seriously making demands on the educational system.”
Nelson says funding research projects – which mining companies didn’t generally like doing – and internships are “incredibly important”.
“Every mining company [and] every consulting company can take advantage of internships, and not too many are,” she says.
An audience member observed: “Speaking as an undergraduate student there [are] close to zero internships available for us.”
The webinar heard continuing professional development (CPD) mentorship and training demand was “about 10 times bigger than the formal degree demand”, putting increasing strain on available, high-level experts and resources within engineering and consulting firms, and academia.
Technology and other aids had to be leveraged to capture, update and make the best instruction content available where it was needed. And again, the industry had to accept there was a critical and possibly widening gap between the supply and demand for current teaching and training resources.
Tailings training courses developed with input from leading Canadian engineering firm, Klohn Crippen Berger (KCB), and sponsored by a mining major, were intended to be made available more widely, “but the [mining company] changed their mind and decided they’d just keep it in-house”, the event heard.
“The point is there are consultants already actively engaged … to provide training,” Williams says.
“But it needs to be more accessible. It can’t be just for one company. There needs to be some sort of formula for getting it out there.”
Boston Consulting’s Wood says technology, including AI, can play a role in accelerating learning and potentially improving the productivity of tailings professionals, “so, effectively, we need fewer people to do the tasks that are required, either through making those people more productive or re-engineering the tasks themselves”.
On the challenge of better connection between those most passionate about professional standards, and those who generally fund them, Wood says history suggests market forces invariably solve supply-demand issues.
“[But] that doesn’t mean we can’t accelerate the rate at which we get there.
“Mining companies will be willing to invest tremendous amounts of money to solve this problem, because effectively it becomes a constraint on their ability to generate value,” he says.
“I hear a lot [here] about how we need to resource these things … because ultimately we care about it because we’re good people and we like solving the world’s problems.
“But the people who really care about this are the ones that won’t make billions of dollars in EBITDA unless we solve this because they will be shut down because they haven’t certified their tailings dam.
“So there is definitely something about educating the people who really need this stuff, helping them understand the value at stake, and effectively the return on investment they’ll get from any of the courses that any of you are teaching.”