With diversified miner Vedanta Zinc International’s (VZI’s) flagship Gamsberg project coming on stream, the Northern Cape province is poised to become a base metals mining, processing and beneficiation hub.
VZI CEO Deshnee Naidoo says Gamsberg could have a huge impact on the local region, which comprises Khâi Ma and the greater Namaqua region.
In terms of employment, Gamsberg employed about 3 500 people during peak construction, largely from the region, which is home to about 12 000 people; in terms of investment, about 70% of the R5.6-billion Phase 1 capital investment was spent in South Africa, she explains.
The employment opportunities and capital investment figures could potentially double in Phase 2, she tells Mining Weekly.
Additionally, the refinery smelter at Gamsberg is set to be a game changer, Naidoo adds, noting that about 170 000 m3 of concrete and 25 000 t of structural steel will be used for further construction at the site. This is equal to three to four times the amount used during construction in Phase 1.
There has been a lack of exploration and investment in the mining and mineral processing sector in South Africa in recent times and the South African CEO speaks with pride about having created a “base metals hub”.
Said to be one of the world’s largest undeveloped zinc deposits, Gamsberg hosts 214-million tonnes of defined mineral resource, with an average zinc-in-concentrate grade of between 6% and 6.5%.
Gamsberg Phase 1 will produce four-million tonnes a year and 250 000 t in metal concentrate from its concentrator plant.
VZI has started operations at the new concentrator and trial production has been under way since early October. Shipments of zinc concentrate from the Gamsberg plant to the port at Saldhana Bay started in December.
Coinciding with the expansion plan is a feasibility study into the development and construction of a zinc smelter refinery complex (SRC), valued at between $700-million and $800-million, to process concentrates from the Gamsberg project, which started in May 2018.
The project has been developed in modular fashion so that the SRC can also be expanded to align with phases 2 and 3.
In line with Vedanta’s commitment to Southern Africa, the proposed investment in the SRC will impact significantly on the Northern Cape in terms of job creation – directly and indirectly – as well as further development opportunities in the province.
It is envisaged that the first phase of the SRC will have capacity of 250 000 t of finished zinc metal a year.
Moreover, since the Gamsberg orebody contains sulphide, sulphuric acid could be produced as a by-product. Combining sulphuric acid with the known phosphate reserves could lead to the creation of a regional fertiliser industry, which, combined with abundant sunshine and the advantage of the Orange river, could accelerate the development of the agriculture industry in the region.
Through business partnerships, Vedanta has ensured that more than half the people employed during construction are from the Northern Cape, with about 25% drawn from nearby communities.
As part of the philosophy to help accelerate ramp-up, it was key for the partners to recruit and upskill a certain percentage of the local community: about 30% of employees were from Khâi-Ma and 60% from the wider Northern Cape region during construction, adds Naidoo.
Phase 2 will entail a further investment of between $350-million and $400-million to increase the ore mined to eight-million tonnes a year and production of zinc in concentrate to 450 000 t/y. Phase 3, which is expected to start in 2025, will increase production to 600 000 t/y.
Meanwhile, VZI’s Gamsberg Smart Ore Movement digitalisation transformation project, which was launched in August last year, will be fully ramped up alongside operations.
Naidoo says the project is on track in terms of providing real-time stockpile and blending management solutions to derisk the ramp-up of the concentrator. Installation of the pit WiFi, which will enable Gamsberg to collate data and progress and distribute it to all the relevant individuals, is also under way.
Looking ahead, VZI is considering the implementation of advanced process control across the mine, particularly for its concentrator plant, as this is where the benefits of integration lie, she says.
“Once this plant and all its instruments work, we want . . . to access every bit of data on [all aspects of the operations] . . . to use it more effectively in terms of preventive maintenance.”
Naidoo says the project’s collision awareness system, which works on the principle of geolocation and is produced by multinational conglomerate company GE, is used for vehicle-to-vehicle interaction, as well as person-to-vehicle and person-to-person interaction.
“We’ve also managed to use the technology to link into biodiversity- senstitive hot spots. This enables us to integrate everything from a safety and environmental point of view.”
With the data being available either online or in real time, business partners and VZI will see exactly what happens on the project – when and where – Naidoo enthuses.
“As much as it was ‘sexy’ to use digitalisation, VZI saw the opportunity of having a greenfield plant and implementing it from the start. The bigger business imperative for me, however, was looking at how we can better manage and outsource operations using digital.”
VZI has also installed woodgrove cells, a flotation system, which is, according to Naidoo, the first application of its kind in zinc. The smaller flotation cells have a smaller environmental footprint, which results in cost and recovery efficiency, she adds.
The targeted operating cost of production at Gamsberg, including the stripping cost, is $1 000/t of zinc metal in concentrate produced. Of this, between $800/t and $850/t is the cost of production, excluding stripping and sustaining capital.
Adding interest, this cost would be significantly higher, Naidoo says.
Gamsberg’s first load of zinc concentrate was shipped during the first week of December 2018.
Meanwhile, Naidoo explains that half of the current 13-million tons of zinc produced globally is used for the galvanisation of steel, and, with increased infrastructure set to increase steel demand, this will impact on zinc demand.
However, she warns that, in the shorter term, some market anomalies, such as environmental challenges at certain smelters, have driven up zinc prices to between $2 600/t and $2 700/t.
Naidoo avers that VZI will continue to keep Gamsberg “as efficient as possible so that it can operate on the lower side of the cost curve” in the interim.
Vedanta holds the surrounding communities in high regard, particularly focusing on social investment, bio- investment and environmental conservation.
The miner’s corporate social responsibility and community develop- ment initiatives are prioritised according to local needs, as these initiatives play a critical role in VZI’s relationships with communities and employees.
However, owing to a Spatial Development Framework (SDF) restriction, VZI has only been permitted to build 165 houses of its intended 500. An SDF is a core component of a municipality’s economic, sectoral, spatial, social, institutional and environmental vision.
Naidoo explains that, when the 2011/12 SDF was collated, Gamsberg had not been approved at the time, so the town of Aggeneys was not considered for further development.
Despite a lot of subsequent engagement at local, provincial and national levels, she laments that VZI has not yet been able to overturn this SDF; however, another SDF is set for 2019/20, in which VZI intends to participate as an affected stakeholder.
In the interim, VZI is building about 35 houses in Pofadder, about 60 km away from Khâi-Ma. An alternative location is Aggeneys, which will host the bulk of the houses built in the area surrounding Gamsberg.
“If you can’t give people the quality of life . . . to attract and retain them to areas like Khâi-Ma or Aggeneys, we’re not going to be successful in terms of recruitment,” Naidoo elaborates.
Recent work by VZI in the Khâi-Ma local municipality includes the Aggeneys public clinic, which caters for about 600 patients monthly; the PinkDrive outreach programme; the Black Mountain Cataract Surgery project, which aims to relieve existing cataract surgery backlogs; and the community WiFi project, which was launched in mid-August 2018.
Vedanta believes that preservation, protection, restoration and rehabilitation are the pillars which should guide the environmental planning of any mining project, and that they are critical in the environmentally sensitive and fragile Northern Cape.
Gamsberg is located in the succulent Karoo biome, which is one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hot spots. The biome is home to at least 6 000 plant species, and, with the Bushmanland Centre of Endemism hosting 397 unique succulents, VZI had to develop the project without damaging the fragile site to ensure that the area could be restored when mining ends.
Subsequently, VZI has developed – in compliance with the Vedanta Sustainable Development Framework and incorporating external inputs – a clearly defined biodiversity action plan.
This process entailed the design and implemention of a programme that ensures the necessary protection, preservation and, ultimately, restoration of the area.
The biodiversity offset programme offsets 22 900 ha of land, which is the equivalent of the area of the Table Mountain National Park, in the Western Cape.
About 80 000 plants and 360 000 seeds have been collected thus far and moved to the specialised facilities of the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden.
The objective is that, once mining has ended and the area’s surface is restored, it can be replanted with the endemic species that were removed from the site. Areas that are particularly sensitive, including those with fauna, have been designed to limit and minimise any direct effects on the region.
Meanwhile, the Gamsberg waste dump and tailings storage facility have been designed to prevent unnecessary atmospheric pollution and runoff.
The project’s operating model in terms of outsourcing, as well as its technology and digital transformation strategies, have all come together to ensure the Gamsberg project’s efficiency and low cost, especially during commodities cycles, Naidoo concludes.