Engineering is a simple word that encompasses a world of complexities. Engineering a new mine doesn't simply mean determining the necessary support structures for an underground mine or determining blasting best practices for an open pit mine. In fact, thinking that engineering a new mine is all about the mine is a misunderstanding. Especially in Alaska, where rich deposits are discovered in remote areas, engineering a mine involves looking at how to power mining operations; how to transport personnel and equipment; how to transport commodities; and engineering tailings and milling, and in many cases, housing facilities.
Social License to Operate
"The big challenge for all [mines] is what I call the social license to operate," says Rajive Ganguli, Director of the Mineral Industry Research Laboratory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Institute of Northern Engineering. "When you look at most modern mines, technically they're all feasible, and many are economically feasible; it's really the permission to do it," he continues.
Ganguli makes an interesting point, that "except for gravel pits in a city, most of the public never sees a mine.
"We as a society have become disconnected from the fact that we need resources," Ganguli says. "It's seen as unnecessary." Similarly to how there's a lack of real knowledge about where food comes from, there's a lack of awareness about what kind of metals are necessary to build a smart phone or tablet and how those metals are gathered--they're dug out of the ground. "Mining is a risky business, and there will always be risk," Ganguli says. "[But] it's like driving; you have a choice to make."
And that's exactly what engineers are for: identifying risks and then designing solutions to mitigate or minimize them. Engineering is a wide field, and various types of engineers may be utilized to design a mining project. When it comes to the core aspects of mining, Ganguli says that there are approximately thirteen mining engineering programs in the country, with the program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks being one of them. However, the volume of mining engineers graduating from the programs doesn't meet the needs of the mining industry, particularly in Alaska. "The industry survives by hiring civil or mechanical engineers to do a mining engineers job," he says, but doing so requires time and money to train the engineer. According to the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration, Inc., retraining a civil engineer to do a mining engineer's job costs 600 percent more than hiring a mining engineer.
Alaska Mine Challenges
With or without a mining engineer, Ganguli says, Alaska presents some unique obstacles when pulling together a mine. "The biggest is logistics and energy," he says, specifically having the infrastructure to address those problems. Every remote Alaska project has to look at the issue of energy: what's available, what's feasible, what's economical. Closely related, what infrastructure is already in place and what needs to be built to support eventual energy solutions.
Ganguli says the cold is difficult and has an impact on a variety of aspects, from mineral recovery to underground mine ventilation. Additionally, water is always an issue. The source of water for a mine's needs, or the destination for its discharge, will always generate passion. Then there is also spring, when large amounts of snowfall can melt all at once, flooding a worksite. "If you underestimate the amount of water, you can then encounter violations when discharging the water," he says.