The mining community is under more pressure than ever to make its activities more sustainable throughout the project lifecycle, with drilling coming under a particularly harsh spotlight due to their use of water.
An integral part of any mining project, drilling is by nature a process that interferes with the landscape to some degree. It is also one of the greediest activities on a mine site when it comes to water usage. Drill manufacturers are therefore charged with coming up with designs that are more sustainable, without compromising results. “Not only does new drilling equipment have to be accurate and reliable but it also has to be environmentally friendly,” says Luc Paquet, President of Fordia, a Canadian diamond drilling company. “For an activity that by definition alters the world’s landscape, this is no easy task.”
Water consumption is a particularly urgent issue in Mexico. According to the National Water Program, 13 of Mexico’s 32 states lack access to basic water services. Among the worst affected is Guerrero, a concern given that the state plays host to a number of exciting gold projects, including Timmins Gold’s, now Alio Gold, Ana Paula and Torex Gold’s Media Luna, that will be launching commercial production in the next few years. To sustainably meet the national demand for water, the Water Commission estimates that infrastructure projects require in the region of MX$306 billion in investment by 2030.
While many urban areas in Mexico suffer from lack of access to water, it is primarily the rural communities that bear the brunt of this shortfall. According to the Mexican Center for Environmental Rights (CEMDA), of the 9 million people living without access to potable water in Mexico, 5 million are in rural areas. With mining projects almost always situated in remote corners of the country, the extraction sector, and particularly drilling, is putting an extra strain on water provision that rural communities could do without.
But the industry is aware of this challenge and is responding. Traditional drilling techniques are so waterintensive because water must constantly run through the rig to ensure the drill bit remains cool and lubricated. Tecmin, a Zacatecas-based drill manufacturer and contractor, is prioritizing its R&D efforts on making its rigs more water-efficient through more compact designs that require less cooling. According to company Director General Daniel Nofrietta, lighter drill rigs also help to ease the stress on the land.
“We are striving to make drills that use less and less water through better cooling systems that are smaller and lighter, because water scarcity is a big issue especially in some of the remote locations in which we work,” says Nofrietta. “We move machines using skid mounts but one thing I have been advocating is to focus on using tracks to mitigate the impact on the land. This is hopefully something we will achieve by the end of 2017.”
While Tecmin is focused on improving conventional drilling methods, Fordia has developed an innovative new water-treatment system (WTS) that minimizes usage by separating and cleaning the water in sludge and feeding it back into the application. By recycling the cuttings, the quantity of waste is greatly reduced, generating a positive impact on both surrounding communities and ecosystems. The WTS is more lightweight than traditional solutions, making it easier to transport and operate, and it can be applied to both underground and surface mining projects. All of this translates to savings for the user.
“The residue needs to be disposed of because it can be harmful to the environment and the responsibility rests on the shoulders of drilling companies,” says Paquet. “Our system minimizes the consumption of water during diamond drilling. It is an innovative solution to environmental problems that is easy to use.”
By developing more efficient techniques, the drilling community is not only helping to protect the environment; it is also doing itself a favor. Energy expenses typically account for anything between 30-45 percent of the total costs of running a mine in Mexico, and so operators welcome any new technology that saves on fuel, water or electricity consumption.
Moreover, greener drilling practices will help to appease communities in Mexico’s mining regions, many of whom remain ambivalent to mineral extraction. According to Frederick Davidson, President and CEO of Energold Drilling, having the support of local residents is vital to the success – or otherwise – of drilling projects and so it is vital that the companies do what they can to get communities on side.
“It is important to leave a lasting benefit in the communities,” he says. “Even something as small as a hand pump to provide water to communities can make a significant impact and pave the road for future exploration companies in the country.”