Copper prices are close to the historical record and, in the opinion of most experts, they are capable of updating it as early as this year. In many respects, this situation is a consequence of the “green agenda”. The golden-pink metal is highly conductive and therefore in demand not only in cables but also in electric cars and wind turbines whose production is growing all over the world. Are Russian mining companies ready to meet domestic demand and compete in the global market? Especially given the widespread tightening of environmental rules and regulations. Forpost Press asked Natalia Gonchar, vice president of the Russian Copper Company.
Copper consumption, including in our country, is likely to grow at an accelerated rate in the future. What is your company’s reaction to it? Is production increasing? Are new deposits being explored?
We pay a lot of attention to the replenishment of our raw material base. It increased several times in the last decade and a half. Of course, this also affects our production volumes. For example, our production of copper cathodes has increased threefold. We don’t stand still; we are engaged in operational exploration. Quite recently, we have received a report from the Reserves Commission, which confirmed that total copper reserves at the Malmyzhskoe deposit in Khabarovsk Region have increased from 5 to 8 million tons. And gold reserves increased by 25%.
In addition, we are now introducing technological solutions, including at Mikheyevsky and Tominsky GOKs, which enable us to involve ore with a low cutoff grade of a useful component in processing. Previously, the average content was from 1 to 1.5%, but now it is already 0.4%. And it is 0.2% at Malmyzhskoe deposit. Earlier, exploitation of such poor deposits was considered economically inexpedient.
Technologies change. More and more powerful and highly productive flotation machines, crushers, and other equipment are appearing. Therefore, one of our most important tasks is to follow the progress in the field of mining and meet the level of the world’s best practices to make the process of subsoil use as efficient as possible. To do this, by the way, it is necessary to coordinate their actions with scientists, otherwise, it will be extremely difficult to achieve a positive result.
It is clear that the scientific component plays a big role in any production cycle. But if you buy new machines or ready-made conveyors, it automatically solves the problem of increasing profitability. Why involve scientists in such a case?
First of all, we need to understand what specific technology is suitable for this or that project. And how we can adapt it to achieve maximum efficiency. There are always a lot of nuances, such as the depth of a mineral deposit or the presence of associated minerals.
It would be very presumptuous to make decisions to begin work without scientific support. The risk of error in such a case becomes much higher. At the heart of economic and environmental efficiency are precisely competent engineering surveys: selection of the grid (location of wells for drilling and blasting - ed.), drilling depth, selection of equipment for ore preparation in the pit, its enrichment at the plant, the necessary reagents best suited to the processing of raw materials.
In addition, the mill, as we all know, generates waste, the so-called tailings left after the separation of the valuable component. They can and should also be used as a useful product. For example, as stowing material for liquidation of worked-out pits, including the Korkinsky coal mine. There is no way to do without scientific expertise here. That is why our partnership with St. Petersburg Mining University is especially valuable for us because its specialists can accompany our projects on all the above-mentioned stages.
You mentioned the Korkinsky open pit, which is one of the most environmentally problematic sites in Russia, near Chelyabinsk. As far as I understand, the Russian Copper Company is working on remediation there. Why are you taking on this task, which isn’t very gratifying, since another subsoil user was mining coal there? And is it true that a park with a lake will soon appear in the place of this eternally smoking quarry?
Yes, we reissued the license and assumed obligations for reclamation of the Korkinsky open pit. To make it clear what we are talking about: its length is 3 kilometres, width – 2.5 kilometres, and depth - about five hundred meters. It is the deepest coal mine in Eurasia. Raw materials have been mined there since 1934. Now mining is stopped, but despite this, the object is still a source of negative impact on the environment and health of residents. There are localized endogenous fires caused by spontaneous combustion of the rock and, until recently, the sides of the pit have collapsed, threatening nearby buildings.
Five years ago, when the leadership of the Chelyabinsk region audited all the documentation for the Tominsk mine, it provided for a standard technology for the development of the mining plant. That is mining, enrichment at the plant and storage of the plant's waste in the tailings pond. So, we were asked to consider using the mine's tailings to liquidate the Korkinsky quarry. It is nearby, only 14 kilometres away. At the time of the audit, the pit was almost abandoned, constantly burning, and the smoke from these fires even reached Chelyabinsk.
We turned to experts from Mining University to calculate whether it is technically possible to carry out such an ambitious plan. Is it safe for the environment? Will it allow to eliminate fires and strengthen the sides? There were a lot of questions, but after the conclusions of scientists from St. Petersburg, who assessed the prospects for the project positively, we proceeded with it.
Today it is obvious that it was an absolutely correct decision since the pit walls have already become much more stable. At the same time, geomechanics specialists of Mining University are constantly visiting the site and controlling the progress of slope stabilization works, which is an additional positive factor. At the same time, environmentalists monitor the air quality in Korkino and note that it has improved noticeably.
Complete reclamation of the territory will take several decades. This is the time it will take to fill the Korkinsky quarry with compacted, dewatered backfill material prepared on the basis of the tailings from the Tominsky mining and processing plant. Its upper horizon will be backfilled with soil and planted with trees. In the end, a park area with a lake will appear there instead of a site that is hazardous to nature and the population.
The green agenda is becoming an increasingly important element in evaluating the effectiveness and sustainability of mining companies. It not only pushes up the demand for copper and many other resources, but also provokes stricter environmental rules and regulations. Is RMK on track? What work is being done to reduce the anthropogenic impact on the environment?
Taking the right decisions to take industrial safety to the next level is a priority for the Russian Copper Company. From the very beginning, we put a set of environmental protection measures into our roadmap, even at the stage of designing our production facilities. We implement the best available technologies at existing facilities, which allow us to reduce the negative impact on the environment.
If we talk about quarries, the most important thing here is to reduce dust emissions. During the preparation of blasted rock, during excavation and transportation. How can this be achieved? For example, by building closed conveyors. Yes, it is more expensive, but it allows delivering ore to the mine with minimal impact on the environment.
If we talk about factories, we necessarily include dust and gas purification equipment at the crushing stage. We have purchased modern units with high-efficiency filters. Flotation, which is a wet process, thanks to a closed water cycle, is performed without discharging wastewater. This significantly reduces water intake from external sources.
In general, any technical decisions that are taken at our plants necessarily take into account the need to save nature. Our specialists, for example, study the physical and mechanical properties of the waste rock that remains after the extraction of the useful component. This is necessary to understand where we can use it: for backfilling roads, landscaping dams, or for other purposes. This integrated approach has enabled us to significantly reduce our impact on the biosphere at each stage of the process chain. It’s a critical factor in the company’s sustainability that allows us to look to the future with confidence.