El Teniente's new mine level: What's happening?

Bnamericas Published: Friday, March 04, 2016
El Teniente's new mine level: What's happening?

Chilean state copper producer Codelco is perhaps at a turning point in its 40-plus year history as it's engaged in an ambitious development program, involving more than US$20bn in investment in seven projects in all of its divisions.

One of these is a new mine level at El Teniente, its century-old underground mine in central Chile. The US$4.2bn initiative is expected to add another 50 years of life but it has been delayed, as CEO Nelson Pizarro said last August that the project had been "moved to the ICU" for a reevaluation.

To learn what this means, BNamericas sat down with Codelco's VP of southern operations, Álvaro Aliaga, who's part of the team in charge of moving the project forward.

BNamericas: Why has the project been delayed?

Aliaga: We've found some singularities that have been historically part of El Teniente's exploitation, and that has to do with the geo-mechanical condition of its orebody. In mining there are operations that suffer high levels of seismicity, also known as rock burst, and El Teniente, beginning in the 1960s when it started to move to lower levels to reach the primary orebody, has been a witness to this phenomenon.

So this seismic phenomenon has been present during the development of the new mine level.

In light of this situation, we're working to find the best answer so we can identify the actions that will allow us, on one hand, to deliver the best safety conditions for our people, and on the other hand, work in the most efficient way that a project of this magnitude requires.

We believe that this is possible, because once again the history of El Teniente proves it. Today I believe that there's no other mining operation in the world that has this level of knowledge regarding this phenomenon, and we're practically on the vanguard of mining knowledge. These are small earthquakes, and sometimes not so small, and since today it's impossible to predict them, that's the main complication we're facing.

BNamericas: Considering its own history, when the project was conceived was the possibility of delays considered?

Aliaga: Yes, indeed, this phenomenon has always been part of El Teniente. Now, we found it at a magnitude bigger than we were expecting and more extended. And this of course has had an impact on the timeline of its construction. But in parallel the mine is working on some mitigation and compensation plans, to make sure [these delays] won't impact El Teniente's production plan.

From that point of view, we're confident that we have it covered, and I'd say that we've moved forward in a substantial way in mechanizing the work needed to resume construction of the tunnels with the necessary precautions for its correct execution.

BNamericas: This rock burst phenomenon, does it happen elsewhere?

Aliaga: It happens in other mines in the world, in fact we've a network of different mines, in South Africa, Canada and Australia, with whom we share experiences associated with this phenomenon.

BNamericas: You mentioned that Codelco has been at the vanguard of knowledge about this phenomenon, what do you mean by that?

Aliaga: From two points of view. One, from the knowledge perspective, that means that in the mine today there's a complete sensor network that allows for the constant monitoring of seismic activity. And we have detailed and strict work safety procedures to handle this risk. So El Teniente has isolation criteria according to its level of seismicity, in terms of magnitude and frequency of blasting, its depth and charges, the presence of personnel in certain areas, etc.

And two, where El Teniente has been a pioneer has been in the mechanization and automation of its equipment. In the mine today, we remotely operate a series of equipments used in underground mining. For 15 years we've developed the semi-autonomous operations of excavators, for example. All of these initiatives allow us adequate control of the risks and danger that this operation entails.

BNamericas: You're currently evaluating how to move the project forward. Does that mean you will need to apply for a new environmental permit?

Aliaga: No. What we did in reality was to slow down the development of the project, to better understand the best way to build it and that's what we're testing today, the viability of its construction, which in concrete terms means to make sure that we have the best way to control the risks associated with rock bursting.

For example, today we're applying techniques for pre-stressing or pre-conditioning. That means we're drilling and inducing [rock] fractures, so we can release that energy and we can de-stress that rock.

BNamericas: And when do you expect to have the new timeline for its construction?

Aliaga: We already have it. The first ore from the new level is expected in 2022. What we're doing now, and we expect to have it ready by the end of August, is what we're calling "construction validation," and that has to do with testing the issues of [work] mechanization, de-stressing and use of new equipment, that assures us an extraction methodology that controls rock burst risk.

BNamericas: And is there a chance of further delays when this is complete by late August?

Aliaga: It's difficult to say because I'm confident that what we're doing now will allow us to improve our performance, because what we're doing is comparing the traditional method of tunnel construction, which requires isolations every 72 hours. But if we mechanize it, and we remove all personnel, and improve the fortification system, etc., it should allow us to reduce this isolation criteria, and therefore improve our KPIs.

Now, there's no question that if this doesn't happen, and the performance instead of improving worsens, we will have to reevaluate the project, so we can best determine what it means in terms of its impact, no doubt about it.

BNamericas: And in terms of costs?

Aliaga: Today we have a cost estimation of US$4.2bn, and the new KPIs and indicators that we'll obtain from this construction validation phase will have an impact in terms of costs. That's why this phase is so important because it will give us the best information to conduct a reappraisal of the project, and to have more clarity and a better understanding of the benefits of the new mine level.

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