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Saturday, November 27, 2021

The key role of engineering for sustainable mining

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Argentina has talented engineers and mineral reserves with great potential for economic exploitation. This constitutes an unmissable synergy opportunity, which provides benefits translated into geopolitical positioning, generation of foreign exchange and genuine jobs, productive development, growth of SMEs, strengthening of specialized education, regional promotion, improvement of infrastructure and quality of life of the most important communities. far from urban centers, among an endless list of advantages already proven in Argentina and, above all, abroad.

Countries like Chile, Peru, United States, Canada and Australia are leaders in mining because They knew how to establish the conditions to put knowledge at the service of this industry and thus achieve great benefits for its citizens. With which, it is no longer a matter of debating whether or not to develop the mining activity, but to establish how it is going to be carried out.

In this sense, it is important to emphasize that today mining has a sustainability perspective to which engineering has a lot to contribute because its contribution is present, and is key, from the beginning of any major project. Being sustainable implies that the industry seeks to carry out its activity protecting the environment and promoting social equity, as well as economic growth. Another approach is unacceptable, not only for the communities involved but also for governments, companies, investors and civil society.

The effort that our country has to make to make mining a sustainable industry is of enormous importance. In that sense, project engineering, as well as consultation, is essential. The level of professionals in Argentina has nothing to envy that of more developed countries, many of them leaders in this particular industry. In fact, local engineers are highly valued in the world and therefore called upon by renowned international companies seeking to invest in the country. They know of the substantial, complex, technical and rigorous contribution that Argentine engineers can make. However, more experts are needed in the field, especially given the accelerated transition that the world is undertaking towards renewable energy and electrification. This is also why there are more and more initiatives to train professionals in various areas related to mining and, in this regard, the National Academy of Engineering and the CAI have much to contribute together with the universities.

In fact, it is not possible to obtain approval for a mining project with weak pre-feasibility engineering. It is essential that everything related to engineering is explained in minute detail, which implies a very high initial investment of money and time.

Planning, good practices and controls

It is important to know that There are two mining techniques: open pit and underground. The choice of one or the other is not arbitrary but depends, fundamentally, on the location of the mineral. The first case occurs when it can be extracted from the surface and, the second, when it is found in depth. In both, the activity requires very demanding planning from the first to the last stage of each project, with exhaustive studies, instrumentation and monitoring systems, safe operating conditions and permanent risk assessments.

Proper water management, for example, is analyzed in detail during the design, development and operation of a reservoir. Unlike what many assume, it is not necessary to make excessive use of this resource. From the beginning of a mining project, strategies are determined to use the least amount of water possible and, at the same time, to reuse it as much as possible. In fact, world statistics give this industry about 2% of the total water used by man. The World Bank indicates that in Argentina this consumption reaches 1% while agricultural activity consumes 70%; livestock, 10%; people in everyday life, 13% and the rest of the industries, 7%. In addition, mining can also use both brackish and salty water for its operation.

Mining projects begin with exploration and include an environmental impact report (IIA), a preliminary economic evaluation, feasibility studies, detailed engineering, construction, operation, closure and post-closure so that, upon completion, the area in the one that took place the deposit continues being a healthy, balanced environment and suitable for its future development.

Preparation at all levels is a constant in this industry. I remember 30 years ago, in 1991, when I visited an impressive open-pit coal mine in Germany. Among the most notorious, an interactive model stood out that exposed, based on a 30-year planning, where all the excavations would take place and how they would recover the area with recreation lakes and restitution of the environment. It also showed where the infrastructure and communities would relocate. In short, the entire exploitation, closure and post-closure plan was outlined. Since then, everything has been evolution. That is why today we see that, thanks to proper planning and engineering at the service of efficiency and sustainability, Chile, for example – the largest copper producer in the world according to World Mining Data 2021 – has not had any serious incident in More than 40 years in large-scale tailings dams (containment elements in the reservoirs where waste and disposable materials generated during the operation are deposited, built according to good engineering practices). This does not imply that there have not been preventable tragedies like the one that occurred in Brazil, in January 2019, when a very serious failure occurred at the Brumadinho mine that caused the death of more than 260 people. To avoid these irreparable events and any damage to people and the environment, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) are committed to adopting global best practices and established, in August 2020, the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management. It does not replace laws or regulations of national, provincial or local governments but levels up the demands worldwide. Among other things, it urges mine operators to prioritize safety by planning designs and programs to minimize inconvenience in all phases; apply monitoring systems; establish responsibilities; appoint and empower a facility security engineer of record and have strong levels of quality and risk management and review.

Although it is impossible for humanity to carry out any type of activity without environmental impact, it is not about stopping development but neither is it about underestimating the dangers. It is essential to find the right balance to minimize the potential negative impact of the mining industry and maximize the positive one that is otherwise relevant.

In short, a balance must be sought from the hand of engineering, knowledge of good practices, demanding standards, adequate regulations and the necessary control measures. Because it is clear that engineering has its reason for being in the contribution with and for the community; Their contribution and that of their related sciences are available to make sustainable mining absolutely viable in Argentina.

Honorary President of the National Academy of Engineering. The institution, together with the Argentine Center of Engineers, published, this year, the outstanding book “Mining in Argentina”.

Source From: Ambito

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