The Politics of Mining by Deepak Malhotra -- What They Don't Teach You in School

This has too little mining lore, and too much business school fanfic, even though it is from the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration.

A fundamental truth in business is that people or companies that get the right things done get ahead. This implies that to identify the right things, there exists a good base for connecting business strategy with technical opportunities. Generally, most engineers and companies are good with this sort of planning. However, the ability to effectively implement and deliver the business results is where most organizations fail. As previously discussed, these technical initiatives (or changes) collide head-on with the corporate culture, and, in most cases, the culture wins. Hence, it takes too long to implement the change or it is imple-mented inconsistently, and business results are less than optimal. As a result, the resources dedicated to the change are wasted and value is destroyed
My personal experience in predevelopment projects began in 1978 when I was assigned as project geologist to the development team assembled by Noranda, Inc., for the development of the Blackbird cobalt-copper deposit in central Idaho. This project failed to mature into an operating mine for various reasons, as did many of Norandas predevelopment and develop-ment projects during the 1970s and 1980s. Certainly one contributing factor was the awk-ward transition from exploration project management to development (and the conflicting objectives and management styles of the two efforts).
In mining, the technical knowledge and the language used to communicate that knowledge are not necessarily compatible between the explorationresearch group and the development group. This is probably true of most technical fields. In mining, the exploration group is com-posed primarily of geologists, geochemists, and geophysicists, who even among themselves often have difficulty communicating and understanding each others disciplines. The topics and issues that are important to them in understanding and nurturing their concept or project may not be important to the development team, which is composed of mining engineers, met-allurgists, environmental specialists, and financial experts. This is not to imply that they are unimportant, but because of language barriers and a lack of understanding between disci-plines, it is often difficult or impossible to identify and communicate the important elements.
Ive witnessed a geologist who retrieved a dust-covered report from a file and pointed to page 100 and some-thing, exclaiming I said right here in this report that this portion of the deposit contained elevated mercury. That is not an effective means of communication, and does not lead to successful development of a project.
I have found several approaches to be useful in facilitating a smooth and effective transition for a project from explorationresearch to development. They stem from acknowledging the problems outlined above and represent an attempt to cover or accommodate some of the shortcomings experienced in project transitions in the past. As soon as a project is recognized as having potential for development, an engineer needs to be included in continued work on the project. This should occur early enough in a project to allow the engineer an opportunity to express the likely downstream needs of the future development team, and to help develop the requisite data.
The company had had an option on a mineral prospect, and they had sent a young geologist to supervise the drilling program and evaluate the core drilling for val-ues. After the drilling program was complete, the young geologist sent back word that the program had encountered only a small seam of massive pyrite and that no minerals of value were found. The company dropped the option on the prospect. At a later date, budgetary members from the head office made a cursory visit to evaluate how the money was spent. The resource turned out to be a 4-foot seam of massive chalcopyrite mineralization! The company then had to renew the option on the property at 4 times the value of the original option because the landowner knew that the company would not be returning after leaving without good reasons. After that experience, the young geologist was requested to seek employment elsewhere and no one in the company would risk hiring anyone from that school for about 8 years.
A fluorite/lead/zinc operation was not making grade. Operators continued to add cleaner cells to the flotation circuit to improve the grade of the concentrates. The cleaner flotation circuit circulating load thus increased to the point that they had to dump the cleaner tails from time to time, resulting in reduced recovery. Their solution was to add even more cleaner flotation cells to add flotation time to the cleaners for the purpose of making grade while not having to dump the cleaner tails as the circulating load increased. That failed, and the problem persisted. Next, someone brought in a mineralogist and he determined that they could never make grade because there was a high percentage of locked particles that made up the circulating load. Why had they not determined this before? Because over time, they had made small incre-mental changes to the grinding circuit. Each one did not appear to be important in affecting the final performance of both grade and recovery. However, the cumulative effect was to cause a significant reduction in the grinding efficiency to the point that it affected the final product. In other words, the initial design was working well, and they did not think that each incremental change would have an effect. They failed to take into consideration the cumula-tive effect as it slowly developed.
A fluorite mine and mill was operating at fairly large tonnage for a nonmetallic operation of this nature. The mine and mill had its headquarters on the other side of the con-tinent and had sent its experienced engineers out to start up this state-of-the-art operation. It was potentially very profitable because it was during the time that acid-grade fluorite con-centrates from flotation were bringing a premium price. After starting up the mine and float plant, the operation began to function as they had predicted, and was very profitable. The company then gave permission to employ mine and mineral processing engineers in that region so that the corporate technical team could return home. Meanwhile, copper prices had dropped significantly (which they do every 8 to 10 years whether they need to or not), and the result was the availability of many experienced copper flotation engineers. The engi-neers were given a brief orientation period and allowed to take charge of the opera! tions; the corporate experts returned home. Approximately 6 months later the grade went bad. They could no longer make the pre-mium acid-grade fluorite on which the economics of the plant was based. Telephone confer-ences went back and forth. The reagent dosages had not changed, the flowsheet was the same, a change in the mineralogy could not be determined, and the pH was the same. The experts in the home office could not understand what was happening, yet something had gone wrong! Finally the company sent out two experienced fluorite flotation engineers. They started going through the procedures one step at a time. By the time they reached the pH, they were about to pass over it because nothing was out of line. Then one of the copper engi-neers pointed out that not only had they maintained a good pH control, it was even now at a lower cost after they had switched from sodium carbonate to lime. Being copper flotation engineers, they had not been trained in the surface modification of minerals by the interfer-ence or a! dsorption of soluble cationic metallic ions. The nonmetallic chemistry of flotation did not simulate metallic flotation at all, but they had no way of knowing that the resultant surface chemistry of nonmetallic flotation was much more sensitive.
A coal tailing reprocessing plant was designed and built by an engineering company that did not have many experienced operations personnel. The plant would make a good grade of coal when operating at approximately 80% of design. However, each time the plant reached design tonnage, the grade would eventually drop via an increase in ash or silica. The problem was to increase the screens and cleaning capacity by 30%. The problem continued to persist without solution. Finally, two experienced operators were called in to audit the flowsheet. They discovered that the young inexperienced engineers had installed an overflow spout on the hydrocyclone slimes overflow sump. In itself, this was not a problem; however, in order to keep the floor clean the overflow spout from the slime sump returned to the hydrocyclone feed sump! Every time the plant reached tonnage, there was no spill to indicate a volume problem because the excessive slimes being removed were returned to the feed to the plant and the slime content would build up like an excessive recirculating load.
One case in point shows that trying to develop a harmonious plant operation can be taken too seriously. A phosphate plant was constructed in the southern United States. The process involved considerable screening and washing of the phosphate pebble. When the plant started up, it was truly harmonious. All the screens vibrated in the same direction at the same speed. However, within a few hours of startup, when all the screens were in operation, the entire plant began to sway back and forth!
Ammonium sulfide was the reagent of choice in pretreating molybdenumcopper flotation concentrate before separating the molybdenum mineral from the copper mineral. The mill that decided to use this technology was in the far northern part of North America. As a result, the mill was closed up very tight during the winter to avoid the ravages of the cold weather. All the bulk storage tanks were inside the plant in the basement. The ammonium sulfide was placed into a new 30,000-liter storage tank in the basement of the concentrator. When the application started, the process was working very well, and it was declared a success. How-ever, after several days, the odor became worse and worse. Investigation of the connections at the bottom of the tank found that the specified steel valves had been ignored and brass valves had been installed because safety personnel determined that brass was safer (because of its reduced tendency to spark around the chemicals). The problem? They had failed to check with the supplier or review the chemical reactions of the product they were storing. As they learned the hard way, ammonium sulfide is an excellent solvent over time for any brass components!
some petroleum engineers were assigned to design a mineral pro-cessing plant. Their inexperience resulted in designing slurry lines that feed the hydrocyclones that contained 5- by 90-degree turns, 4 flats, and 2 verticals for 125 feet. When the plant started up, all lines sanded up as a result of a 30% drop in velocity to the hydrocyclone. As a result, they could not distinguish between slurry and liquid
it is often politically easier for the less experienced metallurgist to portray more optimistic metallurgical performance to senior management than to try to justify more conservative projections, even though these may more accurately reflect the expected performance at full commercial scale.
In developing countries, the local people may also have unrealistic expectations about hir-ing. In most cases, the local people do not have the necessary skills for even the relatively simple tasks of truck driving or equipment operation. Although of course a training program should be introduced to provide the locals with these skills, they should be told in the mean-time that it will be necessary to bring skilled people from other parts of the country or even from other countries to put the mine into production. Whatever is done to assure the locals of this necessity, there will always be resentment, especially toward expatriates because they will be given certain privileges (such as living allowances) that the locals do not
A well-known Spanish saying is Quien pide poco es un loco. Literally translated, this means Who asks for little is crazy. It is common and logical for community people to ask for every-thing under the sun from mining companies who are stealing our riches. One should not be overwhelmed or worried about the flood of requests. These requests need to be reviewed, rejected, approved, prioritized, or postponed.
A case in point was the Gortdrum Copper Mine in Ireland. Halfway through mining the orebody, mercury was discovered in sufficient quantities to cause smelters to reject the con-centrates, turning back whole shiploads. A mercury retort plant had to be implemented quickly, which had its own difficulties because of high arsenic levels. ... Once solved, the mercury plant became a major profit center for the company.