Gold mining is hard enough in normal climates, but doing it in the remote arctic where all equipment, people and supplies must be flown in and out is a whole different ballgame. Just reaching and staying alive in these regions is extremely difficult and costly; recruiting and retaining personnel to work there is even harder. Luckily, there are some new technical tricks for bridging the miles, increasing collaboration, and reducing isolation.
But why go in the first place? Well, while most gold mines worldwide produce 1-2 grams of gold per ton of rock and earth processed, mines in arctic regions can yield 6-8 grams per ton, and do these jobs with relatively smaller equipment and lower energy costs.
One of the most remote of these artic operations is the new Back River project by Sabina Gold & Silver Corp. It's located in Canada's far northern Nunavut province about 150 km south of the Bathhurst Inlet and the Artic Circle and 550 km northeast of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.
"The main challenges are how to recruit good people and keep them up there, and how to accomplish the logistics of exploration, construction and operations," said Wes Carson, vice president of project development at Sabina, which is one of the 500-600 small and typically creative companies in the "junior" mining industry based in and around Vancouver, B.C.
Carson presented "Integrated and Remote Operations for a Gold Mine in the Canadian Arctic" this week at the Emerson Global Users Exchange 2015 in Denver.
The Back River project includes an estimated 7.2 million ounces of gold deposits on two main properties named Goose and George, but its primary exploratory and construction activities before beginning production are at its 5x7-km campsite. The mine is expected to finish construction in 2017, and begin routine operations in 2019. It's planned to be about 72% open pits, and produce about 6 grams of gold per ton of material processed.
In 2013, Sabina spent nine months at Back River doing exploratory drilling, as well as geotechnical, geo-mechanical and infill work. These and other development, construction and support activities at the mine have required 517 flights, including 90 by Hercules C-130 aircrafts, which can bring in large diesel fuel bladders (each holding 40 tons), heavy earth-moving equipment, crushers and even double-walled fuel tanks. In all, 2,297 inbound and outbound passengers, 5 million pounds of freight and 2 million liters of diesel fuel have been flown into the site.
In the future, arctic-class barges will bring supplies via the inlet to a 150-km ice road to the mine, but Carson reported these more than 3,000-4,000-mile marine trips take 25 days, have a small seasonal windows of a few ice-free weeks, and must be coordinated with construction of the ice road that takes six weeks to build each year and can only be used for seven to eight weeks.
"Most of Back River's staff are six- to nine-month contractors," explained Carson. "We peaked at about 200 full-time employees and contractors in 2013. Personnel at the mine will peak at about 800 in 2017, including many with specialized skills like mechanical and electrical engineering during the last 2.5 years of construction. The regular operations staff will be about 500 full-time employees, including 300 in mining, 96 in the processing plant, 22 in site services, and 42 in management, administration and accounting. The Nunavut regional only has about 6,000 population in total, but we've been able to recruit 35 local staff as well."
To develop and maintain a culture that attracts and retains good and well-trained team members, Carson reported that Sabina is using a two-part, people-centric integrated operations and remote operations strategy, which revamps the traditional mining vs. processing vs. maintenance silos, and creatively uses technology to address some very human issues.
"The challenge is managing multiple on-site contractors and their personnel, who have varying levels of training and experience," said Carson. "We also have to retain a highly mobile construction management team; manage a continuous state of transition throughout the construction phase; cope with a lack of communications infrastructure during early construction; and track project progress for both internal and external stakeholders. We also had to recruit the initial operating team, conduct initial and ongoing training for all site personnel, compete with other fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) operations, recruit and retain technical staff, ensure continuous improvement, and communicate effectively with those stakeholders."
Achieving all these goals meant that Sabina had to improve communications, coordination and decision-making between its former organizational silos for mining, milling and maintenance. "Integrated operations is not a technical exercise," said Carson. "These silos often didn't traditionally communicate well, and we had to integrate many distributed skill sets and establish the best culture from the beginning. On the other hand, remote integrated operations meant using technology to support collaboration among our new organizational groups, reducing onsite staff, and giving them access to worldwide experts that can help them."
Similar to many other process industry applications, technical solutions employed at Back River have migrated from remote diagnostics and monitoring to remote, integrated and intelligent operations.
In mining operations, these new components include:
- GPS locators on all mobile equipment;
- Dispatch system that enables identification of material types and productivities, allowing efficient assignment of equipment fleets; and,
- Real-time health monitoring on all equipment, which is integrated directly into a preventive maintenance system.
In processing operations, the mine's new devices include:
- Instrumentation to clearly understand all stages of the crushing, grinding, leaching and recovery processes;
- Process control system, such as DeltaV DCS, to enable intelligent control at all levels of the process; and,
- Real-time health monitoring on all equipment, integrated directly into a preventative maintenance system.
For communications, the mine is using:
- Satellite and/or microwave communications back to Sabina's operations center in Vancouver; and
- Central control rooms onsite and/or offsite for mine dispatchers, mill control personnel and associated planning personnel, who can deliver real-time, relevant information to operations, technical and management personnel.
Beyond the gold it will produce, Carson says moving to its integrated and remote operations strategy is expected to enable a one-year payback, and save about $44 million over the life of the Back River mine. Its life-of-mine capital and operating expenses are expected to be about $20 million, but life-of-mine savings from reduced FIFO transportation, site loading and less needed staff add up about $64 million.
"Integration and remote operations is the best way for us to tackle this remote mining project because we'll need fewer total people, and we can better deploy the best available ones onsite," he said. "Plus, we'll increase productivity through efficient communications and use of resources, and take advantage of current technology for improved monitoring and management of information onsite and offsite."