The problem with water is that we seldom have the right amount

While miners may have water management plans in place, checking that the model actually works in the field takes effort and commitment, says Dirk Van Zyl, an expert in tailings and mined earth structures and a professor at UBC.

Van Zyl, who is a mining professor at UBC and a member of the Mount Polley review panel, is helping organize a conference, Mine Water Solutions in Extreme Environments, which runs from April 12-15, 2015, in Vancouver, B.C.

Van Zyl spoke with MINING.com early this month.

Register for the Mine Water Solutions Conference, April 12-15 in Vancouver, BC

MINING.com: Why is managing mine water important? 

Dirk Van Zyl: Mine water is really one of the most important pieces because we either have too much or we have too little. It's very seldom that we have just enough. If we have too much water, then we may have storage issues, and we may have issues with water treatment. If we have too little water, then we have to find water supplies and some mines go as far as desalinating ocean water and pumping it hundreds of kilometres at very high elevation heads to the mines. So overall mining companies are paying more and more attention to the mine water issues that they are dealing with. It is also an issue that effects the communities very much because in many cases it is a choice of using water for a mine or having it available for agriculture. That is the case in especially some of the direr regions of Chile and Peru.

MINING.com: What is the number one thing that miners get wrong regarding water? 

Dirk Van Zyl: The number one thing is all mines have water balance plans in place right now. One of the toughest pieces is having a way to validate that model. That takes time, that takes effort, that takes commitment. And unless a mine and a mine company is really dedicated to getting that done, they may have a model on paper but not a model that truly works in the field. That can be a real issue. The quantity issue is a big part. The next one is the quality issue. And clearly mining companies are very sensitive to the water quality issues and potential discharge of water and treatment to get it to that level.

MINING.com: Can you tell me about your involvement in the Mount Polley?  

Dirk Van Zyl: I was one of the three panelists appointed by the BC Ministry of Energy and Mines to search for an answer of how it failed. Our work started in August of 2014 and our report was submitted  to the ministry on January 30 and was also made public at that time.

MINING.com: What were the key findings? 

Dirk Van Zyl: The failure was caused by a weak glacio lacustrine layer that was not detected. It was located in the area of the failure. There were also issues with the analysis of these types of layers that were present in other parts of the site. The other piece that was extremely important to the failure was the fact that there was 10.7 million cubic metres of water stored on top of the tailings and so when it failed, that water rushed out, eroded and carried with it a very large volume of tailings and solids that were finally deposited in Quesnel Lake.

MINING.com: A Mine Water Solutions Conference is scheduled for mid-April. Can you tell me something about the conference? 

Dirk Van Zyl: The conference will take place over three days. We have about 60 presentations right now. The main keynote of the conference will be delivered by Chris Moran, who is a director at the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland. He will be talking about water management systems at mines, and how today's economic climate can impact that through reduction of personnel. It is a very significant conference. It is the second one in the series. The first one in the series was held in Lima, Peru, in April of 2013.

MINING.com: Can you name some conference highlights? 

Dirk Van Zyl: I don't want to choose favourites but if you look at the program on the website right now you will notice that we have a plenary talk everyday on climate change. This is an issue that is becoming more and more significant in mining and we look forward to those very different presentations. There will also be a panel about the flow of information between mining companies and communities.