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Doing the impossible: The indomitable spirit of mining

29 April 2024

If I asked you to name the most innovative sectors that have most expanded our frontiers as a species, I doubt that 'mining' would be your first thought.

By Rohitesh Dhawan, President & CEO, ICMM

Yet, it should, and there’s no place like Chile to demonstrate why as I learnt on a recent trip to the country.  

Take a journey with me through the biggest underground mine in the world, one of the highest solar plants on the planet, and some of the best examples of a circular economy. They show us how mining has always been about doing the impossible, and the world sure could use that indomitable spirit in these modern times.

The world’s biggest underground mine

“El Teniente” or “The Lieutenant” is a mine situated 2,200 meters above sea level that produces 2 per cent of the world’s copper and is operated by ICMM member Codelco. At 119 years young, it’s an engineering marvel in the majestic Andes mountain range.

Codelco’s El Teniente mine is set 2,200 meters above sea level inside a mountain (formerly a volcano) in the Andes range

As the largest underground mine in the world, El Teniente's vast network of 5,000 km of tunnels in what used to be a volcano speaks to a fine history - one that will continue for at least another 50 years, with only 25 per cent of the deposit tapped so far. To put that into context, 5,000 km is greater than the length of Chile from top to bottom, or the distance between Los Angeles and New York!

Copper makes modern life possible and is essential to the energy transition - and El Teniente produces 350,000 fine copper tonnes of it. Yet the value of El Teniente is much more than its ability to supply the world with essential materials. It’s also an example of mining with principles for the benefit of people and the planet.

Thanks to innovative water management practices, the mine uses just 2 per cent of the region’s water but is responsible for 16 per cent of the region’s GDP. I’m yet to see a better water-to-growth ratio from another sector, especially in a high-altitude arid region.

Care for the environment and its precious resources is the driving force behind the most innovative examples of the circular economy in action. The team has found a way to reprocess old truck tires into new products including black carbon and a kind of oil that can be used in their floatation plant. Even more impressive, they’re remining the tailings (waste rock) to extract copper at grades as low as 0.12 per cent, while also testing the processing of residual material into bricks and concrete for use in buildings.

Having a literal ‘blast’ dislodging old tailings with what is essentially a high pressure water gun. This is one of the first steps of the tailings remining process.

I’d hate to give the impression that it’s all good news for there are areas where El Teniente – and our industry – need to do better. Here too, there’s reason for hope. For many years, the percentage of women working at El Teniente and the Chilean mining industry at large was 10 per cent or below, and some said that was impossible to change. Yet, thanks to concerted efforts, today 17 per cent of the workforce at El Teniente is female, a transformation that mirrors industry-wide progress. While there’s loads more to be done, the progress is heartening to see, especially as no other country has improved female participation as quickly as Chile.

On health and safety too, there’s a lot we still need to do to get to zero harm at El Teniente and beyond. With one of our industry’s biggest causes of injuries and fatalities being accidents between people and vehicles, El Teniente has taken a huge leap towards a safer future by being one of the most automated mines in the world. Most of the critical tasks are performed by machines that are operated by people sitting far from the mine and thus out of harm’s way.

From electrified and autonomous trucks, to reprocessing low-grade tailings, to water efficiency – what many people said was impossible is a reality today at El Teniente. That’s what a can-do attitude can achieve, and it’s the same spirit I felt at another of Chile’s leading mining companies.

One of the highest solar plants on the planet

Imagine you’re given this challenge: build a new mine at up to 4,700 meters above sea level in a desert, with no electricity grid there, with a minimal tailings footprint, and with the support of local and indigenous communities. Oh, and there will be a global pandemic through your most critical years of construction. Impossible? Gold Fields begs to differ.

Salares Norte overcame those and many other challenges to produce first gold last month and become one of the newest greenfield gold mines in Chile and across the world that will ultimately produce 350,000 ounces of gold equivalent a year.

Because of its remote location, there’s no electricity grid there, so Gold Fields is establishing what will be one of the highest altitude solar plants on the planet. If that isn’t breaking new ground, I don’t know what is.

It’s the same innovative spirit that sees the mine recycle 80 per cent of the water it uses, and to have fully dry stacked tailings. This removes the moisture from the waste rock, thus making the tailings significantly safer and easier to store and manage.

All of this based on respectful, open and constructive dialogue and cooperation with local and indigenous communities to ensure that the mine forms a part of the future that those communities want to create for themselves.

I got to see and understand all of this without leaving Santiago, thanks to another incredible innovation – a remote monitoring centre which allows the team to monitor and manage the site from afar.

The future

Impressive as the engineering feats of Codelco and Gold Fields were, my most inspiring moments in Chile came from an afternoon spent with the country’s best and brightest students.

Arranged by CESCO at the University of Chile, the event comprised me and a bunch of other “experts” from the industry (including several of my colleagues from member companies Anglo American, Freeport McMoRan, Antofagasta Minerals, Teck, BHP and Codelco) meeting with around 60 mining engineering students from 11 universities across the country.

I used my time with the students to talk about Andi, ICMM’s flamingo sculpture that’s made from reclaimed metals and which I’d brought with me. Standing for three things: remembering the past; the need to proactively protect and restore nature today; and the importance of creating a nature positive future, Andi certainly caused a buzz in the room.

The palpable passion for sustainability and responsibility exhibited by all the students was incredibly inspiring. Spending two hours speaking with and answering questions from the bright and engaged students in this session gave me confidence that the future is going to be in good hands. It’s clear that Chile has much to teach the world about the connection between mining, delivering on social and environmental progress, and creating a connection between generations.

This might be the first time Muhammad Ali has been quoted in an article about mining, but his words capture the spirit and essence of responsible mining that enables the world to overcome barriers and reach new frontiers.

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.

I hope these stories inspired you as much as they did me, and I remain deeply hopeful and optimistic about the future of our planet and those we share it with.