By Professor Andy Fourie, Director of The University of Western Australia’s Future Tails Program

Although there have been a number of high-profile failures of tailings storage facilities (TSFs) in recent years, including one in Australia in 2018, the failure of the Feijão (sometimes referred to as Brumadinho) TSF in Brazil in January 2019 has changed the industry irreversibly.

Video footage of the Feijão TSF failure provided graphic imagery of the sudden nature of the failure, and the devastating flow of liquefied  tailings that ensued. More than 260 fatalities occurred due to the flow failure and major legal proceedings are currently underway, with costs estimated to equate to many billions of dollars.

In reaction to the Feijão failure, the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM) was developed, with the standard being launched in August 2020. Among the many requirements detailed in the GISTM was the need to have personnel with dedicated and explicit responsibilities related to the management of TSFs.

Mine tailings and piles of soil

Particular roles that the GISTM requires are an Accountable Executive, an Engineer of Record (EoR) and a Responsible Tailings Facility Engineer (RTFE). Although some companies have different terms for the latter position – such as Responsible Tailings Facility Person – the intended roles and responsibilities are the same, and require someone with engineering qualifications and experience.

Meeting expertise demand

The specific roles identified in the GISTM, as well as the associated increase in demand for planning, design and construction supervision engineers in the tailings field has led to a rapid and dramatic increase in the demand for people with expertise in this field.

Recent estimates from a study conducted in the US indicated a looming shortage of more than 20,000 professionals in this particular field.

Unfortunately, tailings engineering is not taught as a dedicated unit (e.g. a semester-long course) at any universities internationally (to our knowledge).

University curricula are already crammed with traditional technical courses and increasingly with predominantly non- technical courses. Training in the specialised field of Tailings Engineering has thus become the responsibility primarily of industry, with many industry-university partnerships having been developed in the past two or three years to tackle the shortage of suitably qualified engineers.

Future Tails is one of these partnerships.

The Future Tails program

Future Tails is a program funded by BHP and Rio Tinto, based at the University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth, Australia. The primary focus of the program is to provide education to prevent future catastrophic failures of TSFs.

To this end, Future Tails has three components: targeted research, preparation of a guidance e-book dealing with tailings engineering, and provision of relevant training. This article deals with only the third of these components; provision of relevant training.

There are four levels of training under Future Tails:

  • A series of concise videos, prepared for senior executives (e.g. Board members) and those who may be appointed as an Accountable Executive
  • Senior engineers – the target being Engineer of Record level engineers. This training comprises two to four day workshops and seminars that focus on technical aspects of tailings engineering, seeking to bring findings of current research internationally to local senior engineers
  • Junior to mid-level tailings engineers plus those with overlapping tailings related responsibilities who may be more senior but lack a tailings background. This training is provided through a newly-developed Graduate Certificate in Tailings Management developed at UWA, to be followed by a Master of Engineering degree in Tailings Management
  • A series of training modules developed specifically for site operational personnel, including those workers responsible for day-to-day activities required for safe management of a tailings storage facility

Graduate Certificate in Tailings Management

The Graduate Certificate in Tailings Management is an online program that has been developed to provide training for graduate and mid-level engineers working in tailings related fields, as well as senior engineers who may be transitioning from other, related fields of engineering.

It is also relevant to senior personnel who have no training in tailings engineering, but whose responsibilities include aspects of tailings engineering that potentially influence the performance of TSFs. An example is those responsible for planning activities, where inclusion of sufficient land for tailings deposition throughout the life of an asset is critically important, but not always adequately recognised.

The Graduate Certificate is a formal qualification that will be awarded to the candidates who satisfy all the requirements of the twelve micro-credentials that make up the qualification.

The concept of micro-credentials is relatively new to many universities. The intention is to provide relatively short modules that students can take while working in industry, the intention being to ‘stack’ these modules (micros) towards an eventual university-accredited qualification.

The Graduate Certificate in Tailings Management at UWA is one such qualification, and comprises twelve micro credentials, each counting for two credit points. The micros are offered online, with bespoke training material having been prepared for each of the twelve micros.

Students are able to work through the learning material at their own pace, with worked examples provided, where relevant to the material being covered.

There are no time-specific online lectures, as the intention is to enable students from across the globe to participate. However, each micro does have two one-hour online discussion sessions, where students are able to pose questions regarding the material covered. These discussion sessions are recorded and  made available through the UWA Learning Management System (LMS).

As the Graduate Certificate is a formal university award, assessments are necessary. These are usually an online test (or tests) and a written assignment (or assignments).

Four tranches of micros run throughout the year, as outlined in the table below.

Each micro runs for eight to nine weeks, with up to three micros running concurrently. In accordance with UWA’s expectations of the work required for two credit points (i.e. one micro-credential), the expected time commitment, for an average student, is fifty hours including all time spent on self study.

The twelve micros are batched into four units, where a unit is the UWA equivalent of a semester-long course and thus worth six credit points. There are four units making up the Graduate Certificate, these being Introduction to Tailings Management, Tailings Operations and Water Management, Tailings Risk Evaluation, and Tailings Governance.

As mentioned, each of these units is made up of three micro-credentials. The table below helps explain the structure of the Graduate Certificate, with each micro-credential worth two credit points.

The first seven students graduated from this program in July 2023. Four of these students were from Australia, the remaining three being overseas students.

Up to the end of 2022, 172 students had participated in the Future Tails program, with 76 per cent of these students being from either BHP or Rio Tinto.

Keeping tailings training accessible

The online nature of the Graduate Certificate program has enabled students from across the world to participate. Although most of the students to date have been based in Australia (71 per cent), we have had students from 16 different countries participate, with Chile, the US and Canada providing a number of students. We have also had several students from developing countries participate, including from Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Madagascar, Panama, Peru and Zambia.

As we receive feedback from students and from our sponsors (BHP and Rio Tinto), the micro-credentials will be reviewed and revised where necessary. With the tailings industry moving and transforming rapidly, it is essential that material be regularly updated, otherwise there is the risk of irrelevance.

Monthly meetings with project sponsors have proved invaluable in helping to work towards constant benchmarking of what material is covered in the Graduate Certificate. The option will be provided in the future to upgrade the Graduate Certificate to a Master of Engineering degree by completing additional, technical courses and a thesis.

Finally, it is stressed that the Graduate Certificate, although funded by BHP and Rio Tinto, is open to anyone with an interest in improving their skills and knowledge related to tailings.

Further information, including entry requirements for admission to the Graduate Certificate can be found here at https://www.uwa.edu.au/study/-/media/UWAFS/Docs/Graduate-Certificatein-Tailings-Management-Flyer-V2.pdf

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