Tailings panel offers impressive breadth of knowledge, experience and promise for the future
by Margo Ellis, Associate Editor
“Tailings are eternal.” This apt quote from co-moderator Amanda Adams (also joined by Christopher Hatton), captures the tone of Thursday’s live and lively tailings panel, “Building the Tailings Engineers and Operators of Tomorrow.” The discussion among eight experts provided an informative and candid view of what lies ahead for the industry’s handling of tailings waste. The panelists of university professors and consultants from across the globe shared their insights.
In the framework of the recently created Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management, the tailings mandate for the future is centered around environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns. This is the mantra and focus, acknowledged first by Dirk Van Zyl, professor of mining engineering at the University of British Columbia, who commented, “We are living in a changing world as far as tailings are concerned and tailings education. We have to fit these ESG challenges into whatever platform we decide to use for training.”
David Williams, geotechnical engineer, University of Queensland, added, “There are a number of platforms and we need them all. Very few universities offer courses that are specific in tailings, whether it’s technical on the engineering side or many other facets that the global standard has brought to bear. Whatever the case, we need to respond quickly.” Williams explained the six introductory modules taught via webinars combined with an engaging and interactive online component via chat (given COVID-19 limitations of in-person learning) as part of the University of Queensland program.
On the other side of the continent, Andy Fourie, professor at the University of Western Australia, spoke about micro-credentials that are part of 50-hour modules that can be accessed on-demand along with on-site training for operators.
Addressing the question and ultimate need for more integration and coordination in implementing tailings engineering programs on a larger scale, Chris Bareither, Ph.D. and associate professor at Colorado State University, responded that all the main players within academia and the industry are doing their best to share developments, but it takes a lot of time and effort to leverage the expertise of many educators who are all across the globe. Bareither brought Michael Henderson, research professor and program director, Colorado School of Mines, into the conversation to explain the forming of the Tailings Center, which is a collaborative effort among Colorado School of Mines, University of Arizona and Colorado State University where the schools complement each other’s specialties.
In bringing the question back to a fundamental issue of how to grow interest in mining engineering and, more specifically, tailings programs, Ward Wilson, professor and geotechnical engineer, answered that it simply comes back to commodity price. “Prices go up, jobs go up, the market expands, kids follow the market and where they think they can get a job,” Wilson said. He also expanded to say that mining engineering “takes a special kind of cut” of where students want to fit into the world and by and large he’s found that those who are attracted to mining tend to be more entrepreneurial, flexible, team-oriented, engaging and have a curiosity to explore.
Panelist Rick Friedel, principal, Klohn Crippen Berger, contributed to the conversation with the idea that students are generally in “a job where people can feel like they’ve made a difference in a career that impacts everyone’s daily lives.” Mentorship programs, he added, are crucial, which open up students’ exposure and will attract people about the opportunities and break the stigmas of mining.” He also added that work in tailings is a pay-it-forward profession that requires a steady progression of knowledge and responsibility that can take many years on the job to develop.
And in this realm of real-world experience, something that passionately came across from all panelists is for students to gain this kind of hands-on exposure that’s irreplaceable compared to what can be taught in a classroom or through online courses or modules. Wilson frankly said, “What these students need is wisdom and pragmatic experience.” And what the industry is looking to do, on the whole, they said, is find creative ways to attract the right students to the tailings profession, educate them and arm them with the best foundational knowledge possible — and then the final and longest-lasting step of using that knowledge in a lifelong career and process of continued learning.
Henderson explained, “A degree is a license to learn and then you spend the next 40 years on the job learning.” Wilson wrapped up strongly advocating for a sea change in innovation and improving the practice, commenting, “I like to call it designer waste. We’re no longer going to just let it flow out of the pipeline and out of the truck into a pile, we need to design our waste with intention, the same way we design the mill and our operations in the pit.”
For the complete panel discussion, visit https://www.smeannualconference.com/. All conference content is recorded and available for 60 days.