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Surface Mines 

Authors: Priyadarshi Hem (Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering - University of British Columbia), and Jack Caldwell (Robertson GeoConsultants)

Revised: January 2012


This review gives information about surface mines. Topics discussed include surface mine models, open pit closure, strip mining, dredge mining, and oil sands. Several links to photos, books, case studies and software are given.


To speed your data gathering, information sifting, and decision making, here is a fast overview of many hours trawling the web for links on Surface Mines, of the open pit variety, the strip mine, and dredge variety.

This is not exhaustive. It is simply what I found, liked, and collated. If you think your link, knowledge, experience, services, or supplies should be noted here---please contact me.

First a little on terminological precision. Wikipedia notes that there are four types of surface mining: strip mining; open-pit mining; mountaintop removal; and dredging. In this review I talk only of surface open pit mining and strip mining; although we add a short piece on dredge mining at the end for closure.


Surface Mine Poster (Photo: NRCAN) By way of defining a surface [open pit] mine, I quote from the Cost Models Section of Mining Cost Service, a publication of CostMine (a division of InfoMine), wherein the costs to develop and operate various sizes and types of surface mines are modeled using Sherpa:

"The surface mine models include all labor, material, supply and equipment operating costs incurred at the mine site, including supervision, administration and on-site management Pre-production development and purchase, installation or construction of all equipment and facilities necessary to operate the mine at full design capacity are included. The following facilities and operations are included for each model:

  • Drilling, blasting and excavating ore, waste and overburden.
  • Hauling of ore by truck out of the pit and to a mill.
  • Hauling of waste and overburden out of the pit and to a dump site.

Construction, installation and operation of facilities and equipment necessary of equipment maintenance and repair, electrical systems, fuel distribution, water drainage, sanitation facilities, offices, labs, powder storage, and equipment parts and supply storage."

The manager of this hypothetical mine earns $160K a year, the Superintendent earns $104K, the Foreman $78K, the Engineer $98K, and the Geologist $91K. Salaries include a 39% burden factor. These salaries are derived from CostMine's annual compensation survey reports.

As far as I can tell the lowest operating cost is for an 80,000 tonnes per day mine with a stripping ratio of 1:1. Their cost is $2.57 per tonne ore. Pity the mine diagonally across the table producing only 250 tonnes per day at a striping ratio of 8:1. Their cost is$55.88 per tonne of ore.

Taking a look at a 5,000 tonne a day mine with a stripping ratio of 2:1. Their total capital cost per daily tonne of ore and waste is $1,292. Their total operating cost is $6.83 per tonne. This includes supplies & material = $2.82; labour = $2.26; administration = $1.13; and sundry items = $0.62. Now that is one administrator for every two labourers. Seems like a lot to me - or is it that administrators get higher salaries? Or is it this just the cost of all those relations; community, human, political, outreach, student, etc? Keep in mind that administration includes office supplies, travel, some vehicles, and so on, so maybe the ratio is not that bad.


Many rewarding career opportunities are available in surface mines all across the globe. Surface Mine jobs are among the top paid industry jobs. CostMine's annual labor compensation reports give an excellent overview of the salary and compensation offered to surface mine employees at different job levels across the globe. As an overview, in a surface mine in Canada, the manager earns $160K a year, the Superintendent earns $104K, the Foreman $78K, the Engineer $98K, and the Geologist $91K. The salary benefits in Oil Sands are below no one where a fresh engineering graduate start from $75K - $85K.

CareerMine brings out hundreds of opportunities for you to start your career in Surface Mines, Oil Sands and in Open Pit Engineering.


They have no one course on open pit mines per se. There are courses on mine planning, a brief overview of open pit mines in a course on mining and mineral processing, pieces on pit slope design, and lots on waste dumps.


LinksMine will take you to the universe of mining. You can find videos, photographs, publications, technology, companies, stocks and more than what you are in need of. A small part of this is the technology listings on Surface Mining.


Open pit mines are uniquely photogenic. By clicking this link you get a listing of Google sites offering thousands of superb photos of open pits in almost all conceivable situations. Here is one I liked from Siberia.

Open pit mine near Mirny, Russia


Aitik open pit mine in north Sweden

World's Largest Mine - Bingham Canyon Copper Open Pit Mine


Here are some books on the topic:

Surface Mining by B.A. Kennedy

Slope Stability in Surface Mining by W. A. Hustrulid


There are thousands of case studies out there. Google will find them. Here are three that caught my attention:


I have mentioned SHERPA above with regard to costs. For the rest, all the standard suppliers to the mining industry have computer codes. Here are some links:


Here are some pieces I have previously written on closure of open pit; they would be lost for good if not repeated here.


Here are some links relevant to this review as selected by a former InfoMine employee, Adrian Manlagnit:

Drill-Blast-Excavate Ground Control Reclamation/Rehabilitation


The Office of Surface Mining is charged with balancing the nation's need for continued domestic coal production with the protection of the environment. More on strip mining at the Coal Surface Mines page. USC Title 30, Chapter 25, Surface Mining Control and Reclamation deals with coal mines.

See Answers.com and compare their definitions of surface mines versus open pit mines. See also the Nova Scotia Guide for Surface Coal Mine Reclamation Plans.

Here are a few more links to sites where I found interesting information about strip mines. See InfoMine's links database for more.



Information Sites



Environmental Groups


The best example of dredge mining I know is the mining of beach sands for titanium in Richards Bay in South Africa. Here are photos of the operations: See page 5 of this link for an even better picture.

Since 1977 dredging of the black-speckled beach sands has been ongoing to recover titanium. This is a classic example of dredge mineral sand deposit mining.

Can this type of disturbance be reclaimed? One answer is in a magnificent paper by Cooke and Johnson Ecological restoration of land with particular reference to the mining of metal and industrial mineral: a review of theory and practice-see page 56 for details of Richards Bay. Or the even more fascinating paper by Davis et al Convergence Between Dung Beetle Assemblages on a Post-Mining Vegetational Chronsequence and Unmined Dune Forest.


The success of reclamation of Richards Bay raises the question"can the same be done for the oil sands of Canada?" A reasonable overview of the law and regulations related to oil sands development and reclamation is to be found in Overview of Canadian Legal System Related to Oil Sands Activities. Having read this, one must conclude that laws and regulations are in place; all that remains is to enforce them.

Next I recommend you read Canada's Oil Sands-Opportunities and Challenges to 2015: An Update. This should bring you up to date with the issues, including those related to reclamation. Again one must conclude that we know what the problems are.

A plan to address the issues exists, at least one is described in Fort McMurray Mineable Oil Sands Integrated Resource Management Plan (2005) . There is even a practical checklist, namely the Landscape Design Checklist.

Do we have the tools to model reclamation? A part answer is given by Eishorbay et al . They use a system dynamics watershed model approach to evaluate reclamation strategies. They conclude "The tested reclamation strategy seems to be satisfactory within a certain range of hydrologic conditions. Further validation of the system dynamics watershed model is required, however, before relying on its results for decision support with regard to reclamation strategies.

This graph from the Alberta Government provides some statistics of interest.

Everybody seems to be talking to each other; this is good and can be followed at the Cumulative Environmental Management Association's website.

I must conclude that we stand at the threshold of a vast new activity. Lots of thinking has been done. Laws have been passed. Standards set. Research has begun. Good intentions expressed. We will watch the coming years with interest. Even more fascinating is the fact that the process is about to begin in the US-See Comments for the Oil Shale and Tar Sands resources Leasing Programmatic EIS (2006). To compare activities in these two great nations will be an adequate reward for being retired and having the time to watch the drama unfold.

By shear coincidence a young colleague submitted to me a piece he had written on the same topic. Keep in mind he is the son of a miner and is studying with the mining department of a prestigious university. His piece is a trifle more acerbic than mine, but I offer it here because it shows what happens when two different minds confront the same dearth of web information on a topic.

Oilsands are touted as the cure-all solution to the world's energy woes. Massive deposits in Canada contain 174 billion barrels of oil that are deemed recoverable with current technology. Heavy oil deposits in Venezuela contain another 90 billion barrels. However, oil sands mining technology continues to be refined, and economically recoverable reserves will continue to increase over the next few decades.

However, oilsands extraction in Alberta, Canada, is destroying the boreal forest and bogs overlying the Athabaska deposit, leaving a stark environment unrecognizable as a natural landscape. Oilsands mining has been taking place since 1963, yet not one hectare of land has been ever been certified reclaimed by the Alberta Government.

An oil sands mine has never been closed before; therefore there is no telling how difficult it will be to reclaim tailings ponds and other mine byproducts, and restore the boreal forests and abundant wildlife of the past. These reclamation issues are currently being debated in the context of the Albian Sands Expansion project.

Interestingly, the government has not yet developed a comprehensive guideline for reclamation of lands disturbed by oilsands development. An Alberta government website states that:

"Reclamation guidelines and a land capability evaluation system for reclaimed oil sands landscapes are currently under development and review. As well, discussions are occurring on developing reclamation criteria tailored to the oil sands area."

How difficult is it to reclaim an oily and chemical-contaminated muck, and turn it into a thriving forest teeming with healthy animals? The fact that companies are currently trying to reclaim lands testifies that someone is making an effort to make things right. Maybe part of the problem is that the oilsands industry is growing so quickly that all the focus is on new development with little thought for long-term planning and closure.

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