Impact of new tailings standards highlighted

19th November 2021 By: Cameron Mackay - Creamer Media Senior Online Writer

Impact of new tailings standards highlighted

STAKEHOLDER ENGAGEMENT The Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management requires that mines engage with multiple spheres of influence when designing and managing tailings storage facilities

With the release of the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM) in August last year, the foundation of this field has shifted, and the stakes have been raised, argues engineering consultancy SRK Consulting.

The company adds that this standard sets a new bar for corporate responsibility and opens the door for significant improvement in performance. Among the standard’s demands is that mines engage with multiple spheres of influence when designing and managing tailings storage facilities (TSFs).

The standard also demands a more systematic integration of environmental monitoring.

This means that technical reporting on TSFs must now include an environmental component, to improve the way that storage risks are managed. While the stability and integrity of the structure are key to TSF safety concerns, risks like seepage and contamination plumes are also highly relevant to both safety and environmental sustainability.

Further, w

hile environmental reporting in TSF quarterly reports is improving, the GISTM demands that action plans be developed, and that these are proactively implemented in an integrated way.

The GISTM calls for environmental – as well as social and local economic – impacts to be assessed on an ongoing basis, so that any material changes can be addressed using best practices in adaptive management.

Effective monitoring is therefore vital, including a regular review of the effectiveness of monitoring efforts.

While TSF management was previously the exclusive domain of geotechnical, civil and water engineers, the practice now involves a complex array of requirements and stakeholders which the GISTM seeks to address. As the mining sector comes to terms with the implications of this standard, it is clear that a TSF is no longer considered a temporary operational structure; and that this standard must endure safely for centuries.

Previously, TSF management has included the sciences of water, soil, bedrock and geohydrology, as well as the geological and seismic setting. It also deals with environmental issues such as stormwater and air quality, as well as long-term sustainability and governance.

The field also accommodates the local and regional setting, including communities and regulators. Recently, financial institutions and investors have weighed in on questions of safety and risk.

The GISTM embraces all these spheres, so achieving the requirements of this standard will require a comprehensive range of disciplines and skills sets. The standard itself recognises this, especially in its highlighting of the importance of the integrated knowledge base.

The integrated knowledge base is one of six topic areas which is outlined alongside affected communities; design, construction, operation and monitoring of the tailings facility; management and governance; emergency response and long-term recovery; and public disclosure and access to information.

TSF design and management remain key technical elements in the GISTM, which highlights the range of expertise, knowledge and data required for site characterisation.

Generating this data requires geomorphologists, geologists, geochemists, hydrologists and hydrogeologists, in addition to civil and geotechnical engineers and experts in seismicity. With the detailed input from each of these disciplines, the necessary breach analysis required by the GISTM can be developed.

This analysis would consider failure modes, site conditions, slurry properties and, in some cases, predicting the consequences of failure.

The GISTM is a high-level statement of intent – the ‘why’ and ‘what’ – which precedes more detailed guidelines and regulations. TSF owners’ in-house standards and procedures, as well as the recently released guidance and conformance protocols from the local industry body the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, will define the ‘how’.

While having the necessary knowledge and data to safely build and manage a TSF is one challenge, using that knowledge effectively is another. The GISTM therefore points out that mines must use all elements of their integrated knowledge base – “social, environmental, local economic and technical” – to inform their timeous decision-making through the life cycle of the TSF.

There is also the role of emergency response and humanitarian aid to consider. This often demands a level of information sharing and operational integration that many mines have not yet achieved.

In many cases, the information that mines need is already available on site, although new systems of monitoring and analysis may also be required. The technology to do this is also readily accessible, as is the expertise. A paradigm shift is however needed to overcome internal ‘silo’ thinking.

SRK Consulting has been involved in TSF design and management for decades and has also been a pioneer in supporting clients with innovative solutions to their environmental and social impacts. SRK’s teams embrace diverse disciplines and skills sets, and have evolved the kind of multidisciplinary approach and experience demanded by the GISTM.

SRK Consulting’s multidisciplinary approach and capability positions it to help mining companies to align their TSF practice with the requirements of the GISTM.

The company’s experience covers a range of disciplines relevant to the new standard, and with SRK’s integrated approach, the company can ensure that inter-disciplinary teams work closely and effectively for optimal results.