By Jack Caldwell - Mining Engineer - Robertson GeoConsultants

The Tailings and Mine Waste 2010 conference in Vail, Colorado was a great success. Sadly you will have to buy the volume from the organizers to read the papers.

The themes at this year’s conference focused on why tailings dams fail and on oil sands tailings advances in the past decade. Dr. Morgenstern in his keynote address succinctly noted that, in his opinion, only regular peer review will help to reduce failures. He advocates world-wide adoption of the system in place in Alberta, where oil sands tailings impoundments have been built safely since the 1960s. Maybe MSHA should take note and mandate similar systems in the USA. It will cost the industry more, but will reduce the overall cost to the mining industry and society - no more failures and malfunctions for taxpayers to pay to deal with.

On oil sands tailings, the perspective is that the industry is far better than the critics say. John Sobkowicz, in his keynote address, for the first time that I have heard, had the courage to criticize the Alberta ERCB for their crazy Directive 74. It is about time the industry stood up to stupid regulations. But even then the industry is still in a kind of dwall about the facts. Truth is neither 5 nor 10 kilopascal strength tailings is trafficable. Until the industry stands up with one voice and tells both the regulators and the public about the incorrect technical understanding that underlies Directive 74, we remain guilty of complicity and negligence in this regard. How can we demand or expect respect, when we cannot come clean and state publicly that tailings trafficability is not a bearing capacity problem and that you need far more than 5 or 10 to traffic on soft tailings? Hence that the regulations are fatally flawed in concept and execution?

No matter. It is clear that a lot is being done, but that a lot remains to be done to make tailings impoundments universally cost-effective, safe, and environmentally sound. At the very least buy the proceedings. They are worth reading.

Here are some reflections on the state-of-things in the tailings world as gleaned from the conference.

There are new names in the game: AMEC dominates oil sands and drystack filter-pressed tailings. Ausenco has gobbled up the consultants of old. Upstream construction of slimes dams is derided as unsafe and filter pressing is praised as the only safe way to go.Water balance is the idea de jour, and minimization of water use is the only design objective. Thankfully we did not haveto listen to out-of-date Australian academics talk of thickened tailings.

Why tailings dams fail is a top topic. MSHA is trying to figure thisout so that the USA is spared future failures: look north young man and do what Alberta does. The EPA is rushing to change things before the Democrats loose and Republicans win the elections and pollution is once again allowed.

The final presentation was on clean-up of an old mining district in the southeast Spain where they have mined for 2,500 years. This reminds us of how young we are and how far we have to go. The area will become a museum replete with orange pools of contamination becoming part of a tourist attraction.

The conference reminds us of the ongoing debates. Why NGOs succeed in attacking mining - the answer is that we are timid and fail to tell the truth. Why do failures occur—theanswer is that we refuse to do it properly. What are the impacts of tailings disposal—theanswer is that we are hobbled by too short a time perspective.

On the basis of presentations, I believe the following: the Rosemont Copper mine in Tucson should go ahead; wick drains are indispensable; the CPT with ConeTech is invaluable in establishing tailings properties; and academics are useless as they are out of touch, unimaginative, and too interested in relationships and funding to advance technologies.

Finally, the conference proved that it all depends on individuals: people of imagination, initiative, originality, drive, intellect, and able to overcome the unending challenges of mine waste management. We look forward to next year’s conference.