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The Role and Importance of Geotechnical

Engineering for a Mining Operation
Author: Dr. Alex Vyazmensky

1. Introduction
Geotechnical Engineering has become an integral part of mine operations fairly
recently. Three decades ago, very few mines employed site based geotechnical
engineers, geotechnical design and operational support were primarily carried out by
specialized consultancies and/or research institutions. Nowadays, global mining
companies develop in-house geotechnical expertise at corporate and mine levels and
hire consultants to undertake mining project studies or assist in solving specific ground
engineering problems. This important change was brought about by strict mine safety
regulations enacted in 1990ties and gradual recognition by the mining community of
the value of ground engineering in optimizing mine design and managing the
geotechnical risks.

While majority of the mining companies have already established geotechnical

capabilities, many are yet to develop or upgrade them. This article aims to increase
awareness of the role and importance of geotechnical engineering in mining.

2. Geotechnical Role within Mine Technical Services

Geotechnical function on a mine site is a part of Mine Technical Services department.
This department consists of several integrated functions and is responsible for
strategic mine planning and effective technical guidance of the mining operations. A
typical Mine Technical Services setup and key responsibilities of technical functions
are shown in the figure below.

It is the role of the site geotechnical engineer to provide ground engineering support
to achieve mine production targets and identify opportunities to improve geotechnical
aspect of the mine design. Also, an important facet of the role is to timely advise the
mine management on the need to change the mine design and/or mine plan to address
the geotechnical risks.

3. Geotechnical Room for Improvement in Mine Design

Mine design at a project study stage is based on the information available at the time
the study is carried out. Usually limited detail of the overall rock mass is available and
it is necessary to make a number of assumptions on the site geotechnical conditions
and characteristics. As mine develops and new geological, geotechnical and
hydrogeological data is being collected, and performance of existing excavations is
analyzed, it is necessary to re-evaluate design assumptions and, if required, modify the
initial design.

Let's consider few examples of the mine design improvements through geotechnical

Open Pit Mining

The value of open pit mining operation is primarily driven by ore vs. waste strip ratio.
The less waste to move to extract ore, the higher the revenue that open pit mine
generates. Open pit slope geometry (or slope angles) is at the core of mine design, it is
determined based on rock mechanics principles by geotechnical engineers. It is in their
custody to design stable slopes to produce the most value for the excavation. In a large
open pit, a change of a slope angle by one degree can result in either increase or
decrease of waste volume by few percent, which has a notable impact on total costs.

It is worth noting that a majority of pit projects are executed on Feasibility level
geotechnical design with pit slope accuracy of +/- 3 to 5 degrees. Detailed geotechnical
design can have a large impact on pit mining economics.

Underground Mining

For an underground operation optimization of mine infrastructure and ore access layout
can save hundreds of meters of UG development. Fine tuning mining method
parameters (e.g. stope dimensions, lift heights) can increase a key UG operation metric
- ore extraction volume per meter of development. Although it is a tough task,
optimization of ground support requirements can lead to higher development rates.
Each of these design improvements can increase the mine value.


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It is also worth noting that detailed geotechnical design may arrive to a conclusion that
initial geotechnical design is over-optimistic, in this case corrections are proposed to
de-risk the mine plan.

Opportunities to generate value in the mine design through a continuous geotechnical

engineering must be fully explored. All modifications to the initial design should be
supported by sound analysis carried out by a qualified and experienced geotechnical

4. Geotechnical Engineering and Risk Management

A loss of the ground control due to poor consideration of geotechnical conditions at
the design stage and/or a lack of proactive ground engineering during mine
operations may lead to failures, here are some examples:
Bench and slope failures
Uncontrolled falls of ground
Uncontrolled subsidence
Uncontrolled caving
Rock bursts and other mine induced seismic events
Sill and crown pillar failures
Failures of stopes, ore passes or shafts
Inrushes of unconsolidated ground, back fill or water

Delays caused by localized geotechnical failures defer revenue generation and disturb
the planned work activities. Significant geotechnical failures can lead to a loss of
access to the resource and loss of equipment, resulting in a lengthy mine shutdown
and costly recovery efforts. Permanent closure of the mining operations is also
possible in the event of a catastrophic geotechnical failure threatening public safety,
infrastructure and the environment.

Geotechnical risks resulting from a loss of ground control are real and should not be
taken lightly. A lack of understanding of their impact on the mining process and/or

passive approach to risk management will eventually result in unsafe working
conditions and may lead to a significant reduction of the mine value.

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Over the last ten or so years global mining companies have adopted a unified
approach to ground control risk management. Each mining operation, regardless of a
jurisdiction, is required to develop and implement a site-specific Ground Control
Management Plan.

This framework is used to manage ground control from design to implementation and
verification, this is achieved by:

Outlining a systematic approach to ground control.

Describing the process for the reporting and communication of
geotechnical hazards.
Outlining the process and provide guidelines for the prediction,
identification, monitoring, assessment and control of changes in the
ground conditions.
Providing guidelines for the change management in the event a hazard
has been identified.

A mine site with effectively implemented Ground Control Management Plan will
have procedures in place to assess ground behavior, proactively identify factors that
may lead to unplanned ground failure and develop measures to prevent them.

5. Concluding Remarks

It should be recognized that initial mine geotechnical design is carried out in the
environment of pervasive uncertainty due to an incomplete knowledge of material
characteristics, loading conditions and rock mass structure. Therefore, continuous
geotechnical data collection and analysis are required to ensure that the mine design
is based on real conditions and is optimal.

Geotechnical uncertainty at the design execution stage should be managed through a

site specific risk management framework (Ground Control Management Plan) to
prevent unwanted outcomes or, at the minimum, mitigate their consequences to an
acceptable level.

The value that geotechnical engineering can add to mine planning and
operational processes should not be underestimated. The mines that get their
ground engineering right are able to minimize practical geotechnical difficulties
and achieve efficient and safe ore extraction.


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