Hernan Cifuentes balances a career in water and tailings

Hernan Cifuentes balances a career in water and tailings

Hernan Cifuentes joins ATC Williams as Principal Engineer Tailings. Based in the Brisbane office, Hernan has a civil engineering background in hydraulics, water and tailings management. In the role of Principal, he was responsible for one of the world’s more significant tailings facilities, the Laguna Seca TSF from Minera Escondida-BHP in Chile. We talk to Hernan about his approach to tailings and his recently completed PhD in Geotechnical Engineering.

Hi Hernan, welcome to ATC Williams

Thank you, I am excited to have joined the Brisbane office of ATC Williams in February and to be bringing my experience in tailings into the company. ATC Williams is expanding, and it is good timing for my career to be part of creating the company’s future.

I moved to Australia in 2015 with Olga, my wife, to undertake a PhD with The University of Queensland. At the time, I was Principal Engineer with BHP Billiton for the Escondida tailings dam near Antofagasta in northern Chile, the largest one of its kind in the world. As you can imagine, because of the size and complexity of that facility, I had to pursue mostly unique solutions by implementing cutting-edge technology. That experience created an interest in exploring sustainable alternatives, often involving many disciplines in approaching tailings management solutions.

Why did you choose your PhD topic?

The PhD topic was “Improvement of Tailings Geotechnical behaviour using bio-additives”. Essentially, I researched if microbes can be used to improve the physical properties of tailings.

I have found that most of this type of research comes from people with impressive theoretical or lab backgrounds but without much experience in understanding tailings in real site conditions, which is essential for implementing solutions for the scale of the mining industry. Besides, I am always curious to explore beyond what is known. I read about a small startup of microbiologists applying microbes to treat road pollution, and I thought it sounded interesting. I contacted them to see what they thought about using this approach for tailings, and my PhD research grew from there.

Choosing this topic meant I had to learn a lot about microbiology and chemistry on top of my civil engineering background because the idea was to understand and develop the process from biology to chemistry to physics.

How did your career evolve to work in tailings?

My career began focused on the operation and maintenance of water management systems. Before joining BHP in 2011, I worked for Collahuasi on water management systems for their water and tailing facilities. Eventually, I was promoted to Operational Projects Manager and was involved in solving tailings and water issues to achieve optimum performance of the Collahuasi operations. Then BHP approached me, offering an exciting opportunity as Head of Water and Tailings for their Minera Escondida site. That role had my full interest because it also included the operation of a desalination plant, the second biggest in Chile at that time. I was in charge of a core team of 30 people and an overall crew of 100, including contractors. Almost a year later, I became the Principal Engineer, and my scope evolved to work exclusively on the Escondida tailings storage facilities. I became aware of ATC Williams’ work in South America around this time.

ATC Williams is sponsoring the 2021 Mine Waste Tailings Conference. How are you getting involved?

I’ll be involved in a panel discussion on tailings innovations. I find these conferences are a good chance to share points of view and perspectives with colleagues. I like to listen out for something new, it might even be something little, but it could turn out to be very important.

Every year, I try to participate in similar conferences around the USA, Canada, Chile, Peru and Australia. I consider it a good practice and our responsibility to understand tailings evolvement and to know the emerging practices around the world. In 2020 I was a speaker at the US and the Peruvian conference, both delivered virtually due to COVID-19. In the Peruvian conference, I had to present in Spanish, my native language, which was a strange experience because I inevitably combined Spanish and English words due to spending the last few years speaking about tailings in English rather than Spanish.

Tell us about your current projects

I am working on various projects of different sizes. However, the two most complex sites are in Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia. The complexity is mainly because of the site conditions, which require design for high seismic activity and high tropical rainfall conditions. Water and tailings are 100% connected, and I enjoy moving between soil and water considerations.

How would you like to see the industry approach the future?

In my opinion, the combination of previous catastrophic tailing dam failures and climate issues like global warming has changed how the mining industry approaches the decision-making process to implement tailings management solutions. Before, it was very profit-focused, and many practices were not necessarily implemented because of the cost. But also, they didn’t look outside of the industry very often, losing the opportunity to bring in ideas that already solve similar issues in other sectors. Thankfully, that is changing, and now they are more concerned about all of these aspects, including developing new technologies to ensure the safety of people and the environment. However, the most significant change is about increasing connection with the communities surrounding their facilities and society in general.

I believe we need to be more aware to mimic and replicate natural conditions while offering solutions for tailings because nature can always heal itself. So, if we can be more open to seeing that possibility, we can find better pathways to approach tailings management. However, these actions need to meld disparate cultures and approaches into an inclusive idea moving towards a single unified goal, using the collaborative efforts of the mining industry, contractors, researchers, and the government. This was the Project Apollo approach, which led to the USA moon landing in the 1960s, making huge progress in a short period. The advancements of that effort were quite amazing.

Finally, we need to help prepare future tailings practitioners, mentoring and guiding them with past experiences and promoting the search for new solutions and points of view regarding the future of tailings.

Spotlight Tailings Water