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Environment Barrick strengthens tailings management, implements new standard

For Barrick, and any responsible mining company around the world, disposal of mine tailings is one of the biggest and most important environmental issues in the mining process.

Tailings, which are the finely ground rock particles remaining after processing of the ore and extraction of its valuable mineral content, must be properly stored and handled to ensure any chemical contents don’t leak or spill into nearby land or water.

A new tailings management standard is being implemented at Barrick that will clearly define the technical and environmental requirements for each tailings storage facility (TSF) across the company’s operations worldwide.

The standard will reduce risk and increase accountability, says Bill Williams, Barrick’s Vice President, Environment.

“Responsible tailings management happens across the life cycle of a mine; from planning and design, through to operation and closure. Barrick’s new tailings management standard will ensure best practice at each of these stages,” says Williams.

Barrick’s new standard is part of its global Environmental Management System, a framework of policies and obligations that govern environmental performance in line with international best practices. This means providing safe, stable and economical storage of tailings with no public health and safety risks and minimal social and environmental impacts.

“It will demonstrate that Barrick is managing its tailings correctly, and to an internationally accepted level,” says Michael Shelbourn, Manager, Geotechnical Engineering, in Barrick’s Corporate Environment Department, who also helped develop the new standard.

“It also allows us to get our mine sites up to the same, accepted, common level and to see where there are any differences, including which ones are doing well and where improvement is needed.”

The new standard will supersede all existing standards and criteria and be applied to all current and future TSF design projects, operating facilities and closed sites. It will be rolled out across Barrick’s operations to ensure all TSFs are designed, built, operated and closed in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations, and in line with highest international practices.

“This is a way to draw a line in the sand, to say ‘Everything must meet this criteria or it is not good enough,’ ” says Williams. “We want to be among the best in the business when it comes to environmental practices and procedures in areas such as tailings management.”

While there are no international tailings standards, there are global engineering standards that Barrick follows. The company also complies with a set of strict tailings guidelines set out by the Mining Association of Canada, of which Barrick is a member.

Barrick is also a member of the International Network for Acid Prevention, which works to address the global issue of acid rock drainage (ARD), including ARD that originated from mine tailings.

Barrick’s new tailings management standard will establish minimal geotechnical, hydrological and environmental criteria and procedures for its TSFs, and define minimum requirements for management and technical review of the facilities.

In 2011, about 57 million metric tons of tailings were deposited into Barrick TSFs from 18 of its 27 operating mines around the world. Most of these operations have multiple tailings facilities, and the company is also responsible for more tailings impoundments at its closed mines. As well, all of Barrick’s new mine project developments contemplate TSFs, some of which will be among the largest in the world. All told, Barrick is responsible for about 160 TSFs across all of its closed sites and operations worldwide.

TSFs are built at locations where the ground is the most stable and away from critical plant or wildlife habitats. The walls need to be strong enough to hold in the tailings no matter what Mother Nature brings, including flooding and earthquakes, and prevent any failures of the facilities.

Each TSF is subject to detailed risk assessments and critical review by fully-qualified engineers, scientists and socioeconomic experts. In addition to daily inspections by fully trained site staff, Barrick’s active tailings facilities are inspected annually by the Engineer of Record or a similarly-qualified professional engineer. The company also conducts regular corporate inspections and contracts internationally recognized experts to provide independent performance reviews of our operating and closed tailings facilities.

Barrick believes responsible mine tailings management is in the best interest of the business, as well as its employees, the environment and the communities in which it operates.