Tech: CSU and partners create mine tailings nexus to improve education, industry best practices

Colorado State University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department has entered two new partnerships to prevent mine waste disasters.

CSU, Colorado School of Mines, and the University of Arizona will form the Tailings Center of Excellence to develop best practices for sustainable mine waste management and provide the education to uphold them. CSU will collaborate with Georgia Tech, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois on the Tailings and Industrial Waste Engineering Center a (TAILENG) to research safer waste storage systems and offer technical training.

CSU has led tailings education and served as a respected technical authority for 40 years. In 1978, CSU founded the Tailings & Mine Waste Conference, the premier technical gathering on the subject, connecting academia, engineering practice, industry, and regulators. Through the two new partnerships, CSU will act as a link between leading U.S. institutions in civil and mining engineering – Colorado School of Mines and the University of Arizona – and the extensive geotechnical engineering expertise of TAILENG faculty.

“CSU has, is, and will continue to be a leader in mine waste management, and these two new initiatives provide an opportunity for CSU to build on what we’ve started and be in a better position to meet the needs of industry,” said Chris Bareither, a CSU civil and environmental engineering associate professor involved in both projects.

Expanding global economies and demand for technology are driving the need for increased mining. Construction, power generation and transmission, consumer devices, solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars all require minerals extracted from the Earth, resulting in more mine waste than ever before.

“Society needs mining, and the only way mining continues in a productive, progressive, and sustainable manner is through enhancing [the industry’s] social license to operate,” Bareither said.

Mining involves crushing and grinding ore to recover relatively small amounts of valuable minerals. The remaining material is a slurry of process water and waste solids called tailings. This slurry often is deposited in a long-term containment facility intended to protect nearby inhabitants and the environment from contamination.

Bolstering tailings education at CSU

Too often, tailings storage facilities fail, causing death, environmental destruction, and significant financial loss. The 2019 Brumadinho tailings dam disaster in Brazil killed 270 people, which followed the 2015 Fundão tailings dam failure, considered Brazil’s biggest environmental disaster. In the United States, the 2008 Kingston coal ash failure cost more than $1 billion in damages. These catastrophic failures demonstrate the need for more training, better practices, and further study on mine tailings and industrial wastes.

Over the past six years, Bareither and Assistant Professor Joe Scalia have created new graduate courses and reimagined existing undergraduate and graduate courses to bolster tailings exposure and education at CSU. They envision expanding this success through the two new strategic partnerships.

“The mining industry needs a pipeline of young engineers with training in tailings, and the need far exceeds what can be provided by a single university,” Scalia said. “Part of what we want to accomplish through the Tailings Center is to get out the message that tailings engineering is an interesting and challenging career path that needs a diverse workforce with broad perspectives.”

Engaging students at six universities in tailings education and research will help fill the industry dearth of tailings engineers.

The Tailings Center’s immediate goal is to educate and train professionals in short courses and workshops, to address the industry’s most pressing needs. Tailings Center partners plan to develop curricula and certificate programs coordinated among the three universities. Leveraging a multidisciplinary team of engineers and scientists, the Tailings Center’s research will be based on industry needs and producing next-generation tools.

TAILENG collaborators seek to better understand the geomaterials produced by mining, to improve infrastructure design and reduce the likelihood of tailings storage facility failures. TAILENG will share new research and disseminate best practices through short courses and other professional development opportunities.

“Tailings present a multidisciplinary challenge that requires a broad range of expertise,” Bareither said, necessitating both the Tailings Center and TAILENG. “Both developed independently with slightly different goals and structures but are committed to serving the mining industry.”




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