Vail, Colorado was once a mining town. Now it is a Disney horror of fake Alpine buildings clinging to an image that is rooted in conspicuous consumption. To survive the off-season, all food prices are half-price.
The conference on tailings and mine waste is just ended and we have left this ski resort, newly informed on the state-of-the-art and practice of tailings management in mines world-wide. Here are some reflections on the state-of-things:
There are new names in the game: AMEC dominates oil sands and dry stack filter-pressed tailings. Ausenco has gobbled up the consultants of old. SRK is merely recruiting (ineptly) and not leading the pack. Knight Piesold is resting on old glory and nowhere near the podium telling of new projets.
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 Thankfully we did not have to listen to out-of-date Australian academics talk of thickened tailings.
Why tailings dams fail is a top topic. MSHA is trying to figure this out so that the USA is spared future failures: look north young man and do what Alberta does (see posting below.) The EPA is rushing to change things before the Democrats loose and Republican win the elections and pollution is once again allowed—if you have money to spend, lobbeyists on your side, law suites, and tea parties.
The final presentation today 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—the answer is that we refuse to do it properly. What are the impacts of tailings disposal—the answer is that we are hobbled by too short a time perspective. Where are the respected consultants of old—the answer is that they have sold out to the stock market and retired to drive their SUVS (Tetra-Tech now owns EBA and Vector and the proud engineers of old are cowed, timorous, and time-sheet dominated.)
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.