Circular economy: the projects leading the way in mining waste recovery

As mining operations grow, so too does their waste production, despite the fact that many waste streams contain useful and even precious resources. JP Casey rounds up some of the innovative projects tackling mining waste and helping to push mining towards becoming a truly circular economy.

Mining is big business, but also one of the world’s biggest polluters. A 2019 report estimated that the world’s 3,500 large-scale mining operations produce over 100 billion tonnes of solid waste per year. The ratio of useful materials to waste minerals is staggering; waste mass can be several times that of base metals, and can be millions of times that of rare elements such as gold.

This waste is of particular concern due to its often toxic content, with poisonous materials such as mercury a frequent by-product of mining operations. Recent accidents, such as the collapse of a tailings dam at Vale’s Brazilian operations near the town of Brumadinho, have also shone a spotlight on existing waste storage and treatment facilities, with growing concern that simply collecting vast reserves of solid and liquid waste is both unprofitable and highly dangerous. As demand for minerals, particularly rare earths and other uncommon commodities, grows, this problem is set to only increase.

A promising counter to this growing problem is that of waste recovery. Rather than cutting down on waste itself, companies are investing in new industrial processes to extract and re-use some of the useful materials that are often dumped among tonnes of less useful mining waste. With platinum group metals (PGMs), base metals, and even rare commodities such as gold among these unintended by-products of mining, there are a number of initiatives across the mining industry to improve the reclamation of resources, and push the sector towards a truly circular economy.

More than half of the country’s coal mines are managed by pro-Russian separatist militia.Credit: DmyTo/Shutterstock.

More than half of the country’s coal mines are managed by pro-Russian separatist militia.

Credit: DmyTo/Shutterstock.

Mineworx moves to pilot plant

Canada-based Mineworx has been involved in the mining industry for some time, having entered into the sector in 1975 with the acquisition of the Cehegín iron ore project in Spain, which produced four million tonnes of ore in its first fourteen years of operation.

Since then, the company has moved into the development of more advanced technologies, aiming to increase the environmental viability of both its operations in particular and mining in general. The business reached a major milestone in April when it announced an agreement with Tennessee’s Davis Recycling Inc. to construct a pilot plant; the operation will see platinum group metals (PGMs) recycled from used catalytic converters.

“Global electronic waste is predicted to increase to 78 million tonnes by 2026.”

The project will see the miner enter into a PGM recovery business that it values at around $30bn annually, and the move is a critical step in demonstrating the efficacy of the technology, which builds on the work of another partner, EnviroLeach.

This third company has developed a water-based process to extract PGMs from catalytic converters, with up to 90% of the precious metals being recovered. The process removes the need for harmful substances, such as cyanide, to be used in the extraction process, which have been an industry standard but pose significant risks to human health and environmental safety.

This collaborative approach could help share information that could be beneficial across the mining industry, a sector which could see an increased demand for innovative waste treatment in the future. EnviroLeach notes that global electronic waste is predicted to increase to 78 million tonnes by 2026 as electronic devices become more widespread, and demand for gadgets increases.

AusProof is celebrating 25 years of business in Australia in 2019.

New mines and new taxes

Production at the Morila operation is set to end this year; the mine was originally expected to close in 2013, but a series of extensions have kept the mine in operation, despite dwindling production. The operation’s annual gold output fell from 165,788 ounces in 2015 to 98,767 ounces the following year, and Barrick is turning its attention to other projects as it aims to extend its influence in Mali.

These new operations are headlined by the Loulo-Gounkoto project, a complex comprising three mines, owned by Barrick, with a controlling 80% share, and the Malian Government. In 2018, the mine produced 660,234 ounces of gold, orders of magnitude ahead of the flagging Morila operation, and earlier this year, Barrick announced that the mine was on track to hit its ambitious annual production target of 690,000 ounces of gold.

The Loulo-Gounkoto project has also helped further Barrick’s more holistic ambitions in Mali, with the company investing more than $6.4m into local communities. A portion of this money has gone towards the development of an agribusiness for local people; in its quarterly report, published in the third quarter of 2019, Barrick noted that this business had seen 48 local farmers trained in food production, who had gone on to produce 30 tonnes of food and generate an income of $39,000.

“Barrick announced that the Loulo-Gounkoto mine was on track to hit its ambitious annual production target of 690,000 ounces of gold.”

However, there may be testing times ahead for the close relationship between Mali and the miner, with a new mining tax code, introduced in October and currently under consideration, posing risks for private companies. In broad terms, the code increases the taxes mining companies are obligated to pay to the government, by cutting a tax reduction for corporations from 15 years to three years, and removing VAT exemptions for mining production.

The law will also create a new local development fund, with money coming from the government, which will pay 20% of its mining royalties, and mining companies, which will contribute 0.25% of their turnover. In effect, this will create two new revenue streams siphoning money from miners such as Barrick, and towards local projects; while Barrick has been eager to publicise the work it has been directly involved in with regard to local development, it remains uncertain if the company will be as satisfied for its money to be used in an independent fund over which it has no control.

AusProof is celebrating 25 years of business in Australia in 2019.

Controversies and challenges

This financial uncertainty continues one of Barrick’s larger controversies since its initial involvement in Mali, a long-running dispute with the national government over tax payments. The matter is based on the government’s argument that the Kankou Moussa bank, to which Randgold sold its gold prior to its merger with Barrick, owed $80m in unpaid taxes in 2016, a debt that the state argues has since transferred first to Randgold, and now to Barrick.

This close relationship has the potential to harm Mali too, with the mining industry disproportionately influential over critical political matters, such as national security. Since 2012, a series of armed conflicts between northern Malians desiring greater political autonomy, and southern Malians around the capital Bamako, has destabilised the country; with the involvement of terrorist groups and little more than a temporary ceasefire currently in place, the country faces significant political challenges ahead.

“Mining contribution to GDP has been declining in view of the slow pace of developing new mines.”

A World Bank report, published in April 2019, noted that alongside its economic potential, “mining can also contribute to peace consolidation and stability by stimulating local development and shared growth”, creating a unique environment where the economic activities of private companies such as Barrick can have an impact on socio-political matters that would typically be beyond their scope of influence. The same report called the performance of the country’s mining sector “below expectation” however, with much of Mali’s gold production tied up in older mines that are being rapidly depleted.

“[The] industrial gold production trend has been nearly flat since 2008, while mining contribution to GDP has been declining in view of the slow pace of developing new mines,” according to the report. “With the depletion of mineral reserves and price volatility, the challenge faced by Mali is to strengthen the ability of the mining sector to serve as a buffer during economic shocks or political crises.”

As a result, the future of Barrick in Mali is uncertain on two fronts: how the company will respond to the new mining tax code, and whether it will take a more active role in the security challenges facing Mali, considering its unique position. With the company’s flagship mine closing, and the national government reliant on firms such as Barrick for support, the miner’s actions could dictate the future of the country.

AusProof is celebrating 25 years of business in Australia in 2019.

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