As engineers and scientists, we love the details. We’ll dive deep right into numbers and calculations and come back up for air wondering why no one else has even gotten their ankles wet. This is a common challenge when developing a mine closure plan. Closure teams start with the details and end up drowning.
What if instead, we approached closure planning like learning to ride a bike?
When you teach your child how to ride a bike do you start by explaining the required equilibrium balance forces, the frictional loses employed to brake, the counter steering and lean required to turn? No, of course not. (If you do, I’d really love to meet your kids!)
You start by explaining the big picture, like “keep pedaling”, “put your foot down if you’re going to fall”. Then they try. Sure, they’ll probably fall once or twice, and you’ll show them what they need to correct for, and then they try again. As you advance, maybe you add more information like “look out for that big rock there- see if you can steer around it”, or “that’s a pretty steep hill, what gear should you shift to in order to climb it?”. Whether you realize it or not, you’re helping them identify potential failure modesor risks, and mitigations. Likely you’ll help them plan some safe routes to travel, maybe even teach them how to pump up the tires if they get low orhow to grease the chain. Eventually they’ll start to master the skill with no complex physics models in sight!
We take the same approach to mine closure planning. First start with the big picture,“what is the returning land use”, “what are the closure objectives”, “who are the key stakeholders”. We build a conceptual model (a base case) using the information available and asking ourselves “if we had to implement our closure plan tomorrow, what would we do”. Then we take the conceptual model (base case) for a spin, running it through our Failure Modes and Effect Analysis (FMEA) workflow. The FMEA identifies potential failure modes and quantifiesrisk with a singular risk profile. Inevitably, the conceptual model(base case) will require enhancement, and we’ll start progressing into the details of the failure modes, identifying appropriate and fit for purpose mitigations to implement. Then we take the enhanced conceptual model through the process again. Likely we’ll identify some specific studies or site-specific monitoring to inform and further enhance the conceptual model.As the project progresses and the asset operations grow, the potential failure modes "live through time" and can be re-visited, throughout the mine life cycle.At every stage of the asset life, you end up with a robust and fit for purpose closure plan and cover system design that identifies and communicates the reality of risks around closure, and optimizes operations to truly implementprogressive closure; in short, an approach that fits your site-specific requirements. The liabilities are managed, and the process is controlled, documented, communicated and auditable all the way from the start to the finish.
So next time you find yourself underwater in a sea of closure studies and complex numerical models, give us a call. When we’re finished, maybe we can all go for a bike ride.
Lately there is so much information available to us, it can be difficult to know what to listen to. Especially now in the current crisis, a lot of anxiety can be developed due to false perceptions, fears or uncertainty. This reminds me a lot of a facilitation process we use when applying Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) for closure planning. Often, closure planning meetings are filled with lengthy discussions around what people believe to be true or debates about missing information, or the veracity of information. Frequently these debates become a distraction, and the meeting spirals. This creates conflict or disinterest, and never results in an accurate picture of the risks or the appropriate mitigations. Other times people get distracted, making false assumptions about the desired state of the returning land use instead of asking the right questions. Ever heard a story about the perfect wet cover design…except the local community and stakeholders were expecting a terrestrial landform , not a lake! Let’s not forget about the closure planning teams that end up doing study after expensive study just because they didn’t frame the desired outcomes and alternatives properly to start with.
Taking the time to set up for closure planning risk assessments is critical. Our team develop detailed fact sheets (Just the Facts Ma’am!), establish key closure objectives, landform specific objectives and criteria, while working with our clients and their stakeholders to understand the specific site risk tolerances and the desired returning land use. Then, once site specifics are fully understood, conceptual landform and cover system designs can be proposed. This ensures all the alternatives can be evaluated against the same criteria and risk quantifiers, and the optimized solution can be selected; an optimized solution based on informed risk-based decisions.
The benefits of this process are not just the reduction of time spend in frustrating meetings or the costs savings of avoiding inapplicable studies. This process can be repeated at every stage of the mine life cycle to ensure that a closure plan, if even conceptual, is not only technically the best option, but also cost-effective, implementable (you better be able to build it!) and meets expectations of all stakeholders. As the mine life evolves you can revisit and update the original fact sheets, see the impacts to the original risk assessments, and adjust the mitigations in a structured and deliberate fashion. The potential failure modes live through time. We call this “thinking above the line”.
It is the same type of thinking we’re calling for from our leaders in crisis. Check your assumptions, fears and preconceived notions at the at the door. Establish the facts, ask the right questions, and make decisions confidently on what we know to be true; what is so. When you get new information, reevaluate the risks and take the right steps to mitigate. Not unlike closure planning, we have an opportunity here to leave a positive long-term legacy.
It’s spring and that means Tara Baker and Graham Hay are off to Fort McMurray for work on oil sands mine tailings dewatering!