Industry Q&A: Overcoming Water Management Issues in a Challenging Mining Environment
Water management has always been a major concern for mining companies and is coming to the forefront of environmental considerations for operators. Several factors have prompted the renewed focus on water management, including mine sites being in increasingly remote geographical locations where water is scarce, declining ore grades that will require an increase in intensity of mineral processes and will use more water; and an expanding range of regulations that will need closer monitoring and control of water during operations. Austmine recently caught up with Bruce Atkinson, Senior Principal Consultant at Hunter H2O to learn more about the challenges of water management in the mining industry and see what Hunter H2O have been able to do to remedy these issues.
1. Hunter H2O provides water management and waste treatment services to a range of industries. What challenges are unique to or often confronted in the mining environment, especially with the increasing remoteness of operations and sites being constructed in dry areas? How can these be overcome?
Challenges for mining tend to fall into one of two general classes:
In this case, management of consumption is critical and water recycling and minimisation of evaporation tend to be key issues. A mine site in this circumstance is forced to ‘make do’, but specific challenges arise due to water salinity such as water recovery from tailings and asset corrosion management. So the solutions rely on maximising water recovery, recycling and capture, whilst employing appropriate materials selection and coating systems to maximise asset life.
Whether due to groundwater ingress, or excess surface water due to storm events, many mines have an excess of water that results in a requirement to discharge to environment. Typically, the water generated from mining operations is of a different quality to that required to meet discharge licences (local environmental constraints). In this case, the focus is on maximising water consumption on-site, and treating the minimum amount necessary for discharge. Different water sources are of different quality, and so site water needs to be managed to minimise the cost of water management. In some cases, that will mean segregating poorer raw water sources for specific treatment, or alternatively, intentionally blending the source waters to achieve the desired result.
The biggest issue for mine sites is the management of saline waste streams which are generally produced as a product of reverse osmosis systems. These waste streams can often be fully consumed within the mining operation, e.g. for ore processing and dust management, but in other cases the salt management can become a very large CAPEX and OPEX issue. Mine closure planning also requires careful regard to salinity of water storage in mine voids. In this case, the issues are best overcome by maximising re-use of treatment by-products in the first instance. Detailed modelling is generally required to determine the optimum blending, treatment and re-use options for any given mine. Hunter H2O also provides support for clients when dealing with environmental regulators, so as to make licencing as relevant and appropriate as possible.
2. A focus for Hunter H2O has been to reduce long-term maintenance and operational costs for your clients. How have you been able to successfully achieve this? Can you provide an example of a specific case study where this occurred?
Hunter H2O (previously Hunter Water Australia) has been operating for 20 years. Its foundation focus was based on supporting water and wastewater treatment infrastructure implementation and operation in regional Australia. Regional councils and water authorities tend to be limited regarding their in-house technical staffing, and so partnering with a supportive water technology company has been helpful to them. The mining industry is similar, in that mining operations tend to be remote and in regional areas, and the core focus of the mine personnel is on ore production rather than water management.
As a consequence of this background, Hunter H2O’s approach is always based upon:
- Robust and proven, fit-for-purpose water treatment solutions that require minimal ongoing technical support on a day-to-day basis
- Operations support packages for periodic systems review and optimisation
- Training support packages for operations staff
- Intelligent systems to support the local operating and maintenance staff.
An example would be a coal mine based near Mudgee in NSW. Hunter H2O managed design and implementation of an overall solution to a long-term mine water problem and continues to provide timely on-site and remote support to site personnel on an as-needed basis. Aside from water treatment, the original solution included creation and implementation of a site-wide water management SCADA system to assist remote operation, both for site personnel when they are not at work, and for remote specialist technical support.
3. Hunter H2O prides itself on working as partners with clients to provide tangible advantages throughout the life cycle of a project. How important is collaboration in your sector and day-to-day operations?
Hunter H2O has extensive experience in participating in all forms of contracting environments. We have found that adversarial relationships only serve to harm the client at the end of the day. Hunter H2O appreciates and respects that site personnel are generally best equipped to understand their specific needs and issues. Hunter H2O offers the ability to fill knowledge and capability gaps and do that in a transparent and supportive manner.
Using a partnership approach, clients only pay for what they need, and the support package is varied as needs change. In an adversarial contractual relationship, the client is frequently limited to the support they could think to specify at the time of preparing the contract. The reality is that needs change over relatively short time frames. As a multidisciplinary consultancy which works only in water, but in every facet thereof, Hunter H2O is uniquely placed to be able to react to whatever needs may arise, whether they be related to dam design, pumping and pipelines, treatment and by-products.
4. What innovations and new technologies have led to significant changes in the water management and waste treatment industries? How have Hunter H2O implemented new technologies into operations?
Hunter H2O consistently aims to ensure its staff are at the forefront of knowledge and capability in respect of water. In order to achieve this, we have a proud and ongoing track record of presentations to, and attendance at major national and international water congresses.
Our key capabilities stem from detailed system modelling, whether that be in the area of water reticulation (systems networks) and/or water treatment of all varieties (biological and chemico-physical).
Hunter H2O is able to tailor client-specific Knowledge Management Systems (KMS) which bring all water management tools into a singular IT system that can be accessed within the client’s intranet, whether that be via computers or tablets. The tablet systems are particularly useful to field operators and technicians for the purposes of supporting routine operations trouble-shooting and maintenance.
5. Hunter H2O formed a partnership with WaterPNG aimed at improving the effectiveness of each company by leveraging the expertise of the other. What have been the challenges and obstacles to doing business in PNG? What were the outcomes of this project?
Since 2011, our staff have worked with various staff from WaterPNG in developing their capacity. This capacity development effort has proven to be very successful. During this time, Hunter H2O staff have gained a major appreciation of how to work on various planning, design and operational jobs with WaterPNG and also understand the commercial aspects of working safely in this country and getting paid for the services undertaken. It is important to understand taxation, company registration, banking and to have good relationships with a range of advisory services. At all times, staff health and safety has to be paramount in making decisions. Hunter H2O also acts with full integrity in its commercial dealings and it is important that people operating in PNG be aware of those who potentially don’t operate with the same code of behaviour.
Our assessment in the lead up period to the upcoming elections is that the overall situation in PNG is currently difficult to operate in successfully and we anticipate only undertaking a limited amount of work there over the next 12 months. However, in the long-term, PNG will be a commercially rewarding country and it is important to have this longer term perspective of Australia’s closest neighbour.