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Archive for June, 2009

As an investor in mining, can you make money following the trail of western companies flirting with the Chinese & Chinalco?   First it was Rio Tinto whose top brass saw the Chinese as a possible saviour from BHP.  Now we have Anglo America demurely fluttering eyelids at the Chinese Mining Dragon as a possible saviour from Xstrata.  Not to talk of Canadians in Ivanhoe who are having  “courtesy visits” with the Chinese ,who after the meeting said they are ” willing to proceed with wide and deep cooperation with Ivanhoe.” 

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The good seldom succeed in opera.  They are generally undone by the evil and wicked who sing tuneful arias.  Thinks but of Tosca and Butterfly.  Aggripina is such an opera: it is one of Handel’s “soap opera” operas.  Three randy males are in love with Poppaea: Claudius Ceasar, Nero who becomes Caesar, and the true love Otho.  Aggripina is Nero’s mother and she plots to put him on the throne.  History tells us she succeeds, only to have Nero arrange her drowning some three years into his reign. 

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“That which we call a rose would smell as sweet by any other name.”  Maybe.  This could have been said by either Romeo or Juliet as they contemplated their lover’s surname, the name of a sworn family enemy. 

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For miners today’s ruling by the US Supreme Court is probably the most significant of the year. I refer to the ruling in Coeur Alaska v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.  The details are readily available at this link.  It boils down to the simple fact that tailings are fill and their discharge into waters of the United States is governed by the US Army Corp and not the US EPA.   If they move fast enough, Couer Alaska Inc. can now get their mine going and put the tailings into Lower Slate Lake in Alaska. 

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Just had a drink in the local pub and a heated discussion of the need for professional registration by mining engineers.  I am sure I lost a good part of the argument, so to update myself I took a look at the SME publication Study Guide for the Professional Registration of Mining/Mineral Engineers.  

As background and by way of admission:  I am a registered professional civil engineer in California, and have been for many years.  I have signed many documents on the impact of earthquake-related geotechnical factors on domestic structures.  I value my P.E., but I have no illusions about what it means.  I have worked many years providing consulting civil engineering advice to lawyers and have learnt to be circumspect about the meaning, value, and drawbacks of overly free use of the P.E. stamp.  I have consulted for many years to mining companies, and have never once been called on to sign a document for a mining company with my P.E. stamp.  (more…)

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What if John McCain had become president?  That is an intriguing question to ponder over copious beer, brandy, and wine.  Sure there would have been more diamonds on the First Lady and that would have been good for diamond sales, which now are in a slump.  Maybe six big cars would still be a symbol of success (I think that is how many he has) and platinum would be booming.   Palin would be powerful and the Pebble Mine would be accelerating.   I doubt anything would be different in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or North Korea. 

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He is about 45, a registered professional engineer and works in the province just west of Saskatchewan.  His annual salary is about $160 K.  Of course there are bonuses and stock options on top of that.

Compare his salary to those of professional engineers and geoscientists in Saskatchewan.  The following numbers come from Issue 120, May/June 2009 of The Professional Edge, a magazine put out by the professional societies in Saskatchewan.  In this issue they report on the APEGS 2009 Salary Survey.  The median salary for professional mining engineers is reported to be $91 K.  Environmental engineers get a median of only $73 K and civil engineers a paltry $78 K. Chemical engineers do best at $91 K.

You salary as a professional engineer or geoscientist in Saskatchewan also depends on whether you can put P.Eng. or P.Geo., or both behind your name.  Those who can claim both designations earn a median of $117 K as compared to a simple P.Eng. who gets only $94 K.  A simple P.Geo. only gets $110 K.   As an engineer I must suspect discrimination or at least an old-geo network?

Of course the longer you have been working, the higher your take-home pay.  If you graduated in 1974 (not that long ago by my reckoning) you earn a median $125 K. Graduate in 1984 and earn a median of $106 K. Similarly 1994 at $95 K; and 2004 at $70 K.  That old issue of age discrimination pops up in that, if you graduated before 1974, your median earning is but $105 K.  And what did they teach those who graduated in 1979?  They get $130 K, the highest of them all. 

There are many fascinating facts in the full suite of numbers.  So get them, take a look, and decide if you want to go to or leave S to work as a P.Eng. or P.Geo.  Maybe just go west young man.

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Seems everybody with any connection to mining is protesting.  Mountaintop mining wins the Oscars.  Indians in Peru seem most determined–could you see similar protests occurring in the American South?  The Mongolians are on hunger strikes, the inspectors are revoking mining licenses, and shares drop in value.  Goldcorp and Guatemala are burning over disputed claims—nothing seems to change in that regard. 

But the mining protest that caught my eye and that makes for fascinating reading is the report that a Fall River, Idaho couple is suing the U.S. Forest Service for what they claim is damage to their mining claim.  The couple want $400,000 because, they claim, the Forest Service “bulldozed trenches and shafts at one site and installed a bat gate over the entrance to a tunnel on another claim.”

Of course with a lawyer involved it is more complex than this.  Here is a short extract from the report to illustrate: 

According to court documents, the Marstons received a letter from the Forest Service in May of 2005 describing the claims as abandoned and contemplating installation of the gate and the “safety closure” of the second claim.  Aaron Marston said he contacted the Forest Service to inform them that the mines were not abandoned, and said he received verbal assurances that the claims would not be tampered with.    The claims remained untouched during the summer of 2006. It was only after the Marstons closed the claims in August that the Forest Service moved in and bulldozed shafts and trenches on a claim identified as D&R #2. In October 2006, the bat gate was installed at D&R #3.  In the lawsuit, the Marstons charge that an employee or employees of the Forest Service “committed acts of trespass, nuisance and negligence.”

I get the impression the couple were slow in doing anything, spent little time on their claims, made a bit of a mess, and allowed dangerous conditions to develop.  I do not know if their rights arose from the 1872 Mining Law.  But somehow I get the impression this is about as pointless a protest as so many others that gather around mining.  Or is this indeed another instance of the brave individual standing up to the rapacious authorities?

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Montrose, Colorado is up in arms about a proposed new uranium mill. Half the county residents want the mill and the work. Half the county wants to develop the area into a string of organic vegetable farms. The report tells us:

The towns of Nucla and Naturita boomed along with the uranium industry,but few jobs remain, and many townspeople want the 85 jobs Energy Fuels says its mill would create. Others, though, don’t want a uranium mill and its radioactive materials, especially farmers in the Paradox Valley, which is quickly ecoming a popular place for organic agriculture.

I know and love the area, having being involved in clean up of the uranium mill tailings at Naturita, Uravan, and so on. It is hard to believe there is not room in that wide country for a mill and another tailings impoundment built to last a 1,000 years. As well as room for many organic vegetable farms on soils entirely free of the constituents that gave rise to the mines and mill of old.

I cannot but have some sympathy with these ladies, for I too grew up on the South African gold mine slimes dams:

Sisters Patty Geer and Cindy Carothers grew up in the area. Their father worked in the mines, and they played on mine tailings without any negative health effects, they said. Carothers held a sign that read “Uranium helps your organics grow” – a reference to the opposition to the mill from the valley’s organic farmers.

These sad pictures of protesters and organic farmers in a fight with uranium producers so graphically captures the dilemma that is today’s US economy. Should we simply stop producing anything that can be obtained more cost-effectively elsewhere, particularly if there is an “industrial” component involved? For I suspect it is much easier and cheaper and less polluting of the US to get uranium from Canada and Australia. Afterall we do not have that many nuclear power plants to begin with–import the stuff–you can always devalue the dollar when the bill shows up.

If we are to take the protesters and organic farmers at their word, and I hate to think of the energy involved in organic farming in that part of the world, America is on the road to a new Utopia of wind to pump infinitely renewable groundwater to churn out vegetables that grow in cow manure and are transported by bicycle to the local market. I suppose it is possible. Certainly if the Chinese lend you the money to do it.

This scrap between producing uranium versus organic vegetables, is a scrap about the vision of a free society. Personally, I am convinced we can do both. But the purists on either side seem so singular in their vision and purpose, that I must wonder whatever happened to a the notion of a complex, interdependent society.

But then, subtle and complex are not the gut stuff of home-grown politics.

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Mining Report Writing

Today (a sunny Saturday), I spent writing the Annotated Outline of a report for a tailings impoundment at a mine in South America. The project details are confidential; the theory involved is not. I refer to the theory of report planning and writing, not the engineering theories that underlie the report (fascinating as they are.)

Writing an engineering report is a challenge. Who is the audience? What do you say? How much emphasis on each topic? What is the best flow of topic exposition? A grand, persuasive, or factual tone? Pictorial, tabular, or verbal argument?

Regardless, the theory of report writing tells us that these are the sequential steps involved (although few implement them):

  • Compile a Table of Contents
  • Prepare an Annotated Outline.
  • Write the first draft of the report.
  • Obtain and incorporate peer review.
  • Prepare the semi-final report.
  • Obtain and incorporate a final review from report stakeholders.
  • Prepare and issue a final.
  • Await the shouts of negation and the accolades of approval.

This is how I describe an Annotated Outline:

An Annotated Outline is intended to promote and facilitate team concurrence on the layout (shape and form) of the report; to establish the sequence of topics; to point to the focus and quantity of information in each section; to establish how various sections relate and interact; and to make it possible for various report-section-writers to proceed with their sections secure in the knowledge that other section-writers will produce mutually compatible sections.

A tall order for a small deliverable. Do you share the Annotated Outline with the client? What level of management needs review and approve the Annotated Outline? How to prevent reviewers confusing the Annotated Outline with a draft report?

It ultimately matters not; although what does matter is that you plan your report, and manage its production by gentle persuasion through the multiple phases of inspiration, genius, sweat, and detail.

Good Luck.

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