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Mining Minds: A conversation with Andrew Collins
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Mining Minds: A conversation with Andrew Collins

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Every few weeks the crew at the Mining Minds podcast sit down in their studio in Spring Creek and talk with guests about their journey through the world of mining. For this issue of the Mining Quarterly, we’re sharing some excerpts from the recent Mining Minds conversation with Andrew Collins.

Collins is a mineral processing/metallurgical engineer with more than 25 years of experience in gold processing. A couple of years ago, Collins decided to try out a new adventure, and he is now an assistant professional at the Spring Creek Golf Course, and is working toward becoming a PGA golf professional.

“I have a new goal,” he said. “I want Spring Creek and the Elko area producing the best golfers in the state. I want people to say, what’s happening with golfers in northeastern Nevada, because they’re the best.”

He is also doing independent consulting for the mining industry in the winter months.

In these excerpts from the podcast, Collins talks with Dino Brunson and Derek Grover and shares some of his thoughts on mine engineering, the importance of people, and safety, and he explains some of the details of mineral processing.

To hear the rest of Collins’ story, you can find the Mining Minds podcast online, and while you’re there, you can subscribe to the podcast. You’ll get a new episode every Wednesday morning with a new conversation with a miner.

Collins: I kind of believe engineers, they need, I don’t know what the number is, two to five years, where they’re not engineering, they’re doing something that is associated with that. For me, my dad had taught me, you need to learn about maintenance and get in with the maintenance guys. So when I was at Echo Bay, that’s what I tried to do. They were changing out a pump, I tried to help them. They were lining the pump, I tried to help them. I helped on a SAG motor changeout, that kind of stuff. Whenever I had the time, I tried to jump in and help those guys.

Some of the best experience I had was when I went to Newmont, years later, working on the crew. So the first thing is, it’s not just about taking that work and thinking you know anything, because you really don’t know anything. And I still don’t know anything when it comes right down to it. Something I realized is that every time I learn one thing new, there’s 10 other things I don’t know. So I just get dumber.

That’s something I’ve always tried to do. It was tough at Newmont, because Newmont was a union job, so I couldn’t do as much of that. …

For the most part, most of the guys didn’t mind if you helped, anyways, so I tried to dig and help whenever I could. Definitely gave me that opportunity. But I think it needs to be almost forced. Because that’s how you really learn and understand what you’re doing, and when you’re telling people things to do, then you know, you’ve done it. So to me that’s one of the most valuable things any young engineer could do is get out there and get as much practical, hands-on experience with the guys.

My oldest boy’s an underground miner and welder, and he was thinking about going back to school in engineering. And I just think about all things he’s done, and you couple that with an engineering degree on top of it? Man, now you’re talking. …

Brunson: I think there’ a ton of value in what you said about, for two to five years as an engineer, getting out and being a part of the process to understand what the operator is really doing, whether you’re in the pit, you’re in the underground, you’re in the metallurgy group. That way they’re understanding, but they’re also building those relationships with people. That way when they make those decisions, the people are there to back you up because you know what you’re talking about, but you’re also going to be a little bit more open to the experience that’s out there, right?

Collins: Absolutely. You’ve heard the saying, “This sure looks good on paper.” And I’ve been told that a lot of times. “Andy, that looks really good. That’s a good idea. Come on, let’s go look at it in the field,” and it’s a whole different perspective of it. The sooner you realize that and understand that and start taking advantage of that, I think the more successful you’ll be.

I spent almost five years at Echo Bay — the company’s McCoy-Cove mine south of the Phoenix mine — and then I went to Newmont.

After almost 15 years at Newmont, I was actually looking at going back to a small company, because I just enjoyed, you know, people — it’s a different environment than these bigger companies. I really liked and enjoyed that time frame.

The importance of people

Brunson: What do you think is the biggest difference between the big companies and the small companies?

Collins: It’s just you know people, you know everybody. The relationships. It’s all about people, right? The two people I respect absolutely most in mining are my grandfather and my dad. Both miners. Both of them had the same philosophy — you talk to people, it’s about being with the people. And you lose some of that when you get in the bigger companies. And the closeness. You knew what the mine guys were doing.

Man, there’s a couple thousand people up in Goldstrike. Although the guys at the autoclave are close. I worked there, I had a great experience working there for a year and change. People are close. Cortez underground, same thing. I had a chance to work there when I was relatively new with Barrick. Just an unbelievable atmosphere with that group. In a smaller mine like Echo Bay, that whole mine kind of had that feel.

Grover: You know everybody inside the mine, to where you’re not just a number. … With these bigger mines and the bigger crews, and you’re producing more gold, a lot of people feel like a number. To where you get lost in the mix. It’s hard to progress through some of these stages you want to get to as an individual in a career because you don’t know the people. And you get those squeaky wheels that get the grease, but that might not always be the guy that you want.

Collins: That’s absolutely right. And that was some of my frustration, and part of the reason for me looking for a new opportunity when I left Barrick in early 2018, is you just get this feeling more and more that people are numbers, and we’re not.

Two things I hate, two phrases I just really dislike — “People are our number one asset,” and “People are our most valuable resource.” Because people aren’t assets, and they aren’t resources. I said that at a meeting one time, and the guy said, “Well, what should we call them?” I said, “Well, why don’t we call them people?” I mean, that’s what they are. They’re people.

When I add up my own value, my wife and my kids aren’t my assets. Andrew Collins is Anita and Brett and David and Anthony and Courtenay and Victoria. That’s me. My mom and dad … that’s who I am. Friends I’ve made along the way.

There are still friends from Indonesia when I was three to eight, that are still close friends today, and names I still remember, even though we haven’t spoke for decades. …. All these names of people, I’m who I am because I knew those people. And that’s what it is, it’s about people. And the best bosses I’ve had believe the same thing.

Kitt Dale, I remember him one day saying, “Andrew, it’s all about people.” He’s the one who sent me underground. I’m a mill guy, and Kitt Dale calls me up one day and he says … “Andrew, we’re considering you for the technical services superintendent for the underground.” And I said, “What?” And that’s what his thought was. “We know you don’t have the underground experience, we know you’re not a mining engineer. But it’s about people, and you like people, and we think you’ll do a good job there working with people.”

That’s what it is, it’s all about the people.

The best story I know about this is a guy by the name of Jesse Bonales, and he is a refiner at Goldstrike. I was up there on this new project, the TCM leach project they put up there, and I helped commission the refinery, and he poured the first gold off of that project. And when he was done, I said, Jesse, man, what do you think of that? That’s the first gold that was poured from this new process.

And he said to me, “You know, it’s like when I load the gold on the truck to ship it out. I think of everything that has gone into making that bar, from the person who found it to the person who mined it, to the person who built this mill, to the people who come in and clean our floors and keep our places clean, all these people — there’s lab people, there’s maintenance guys, there’s operators, there’s safety guys, all these people are involved in making that gold that I put on the truck.”

And to me, that’s where it’s at. It’s all about all of those people doing all the things they do, so we can make a bar of gold.

Brunson: We came from the Bullfrog project, that’s where we essentially got introduced into mining, and I’ve got friends that I’ve had for 30 years that are still best friends, really. … Being somewhat of a transient group as miners, you harness those relationships because you’re in those small towns, and you get to know people, you get to know exactly what they do, you get to know their kids …

Grover: When I worked with you, we put together a safety plan, or we put together this, and it was always driven by how are we helping the individuals out there, how are we going to get out there and be with these guys. And that’s something I’ve taken with me …

Collins: The best title I’ve had in mining was given to me at Goldstrike. Sam Hatch … He coined a phrase, they would call me the People Superintendent. I don’t know if I deserve that. I don’t think I deserve it. But just for them to think of me that way.

Nothing gets done without those guys working. Nothing. It’s them doing what they do. Everything else, forget it. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. It doesn’t matter wherever your head office is and you come in with all these brilliant ideas. Number one, none of those ideas make it without those guys doing the work.

To me, it’s all about them, everything is about those guys. And I’ve tried to run my career and my life as, whatever I can do to help. I just want to make it easier for the guy doing the work.

Brunson: Was there a mentor or somebody that was significant in your career or in your life that helped you get down this path to where you’ve never forgotten that?

Collins: There are so many people that influence you. Number one is my grandfather. My grandfather is a miner, my mom’s dad. He left home at 13 during the Great Depression to go work in the mines in Ontario to help support his family.

He would talk to anybody. On the street, he would just start a conversation, and he would put us kids, his grandkids into that same situation. … So I got that from my grandfather — I enjoy talking to people. So that was number one.

My dad cared about the people. People still today will tell me he was the only general manager that they would see in the field. He made a point, he was out in the field walking and talking to people. … I just learned from him that it was about the people and it’s about keeping the people safe. I’ve tried to model that.

Then just along the years … the bosses I’ve really appreciated are the ones that really care about people.

Those two guys, those are my heroes, my dad and my grandfather are my two mining heroes, they really are.

Safety

Brunson: In the safety realm, I’d like to get your take on, when you first started mining, until now, how has that safety culture been built?

Collins: This is where I get emotional.

I remember as a young engineer, I remember seeing a guy, when I was at Echo Bay, we were putting in these oxygen spargers in the leach tanks, to try to help the leaching kinetics. We had a lot of silver there, so we were trying to speed that reaction up. We were putting these air lances down. These were designed so that they came in from the top. So as you can imagine, these were 44-foot-tall tanks. You had something like a 40-foot-long line going down and then an extension off that to try to get the air underneath the agitator. And the guy is putting it in.

I come out of the mill building and I look down at the leach tank and there’s a guy on that lip. I don’t know what that lip is – eight inches, ten inches? It’s not very much. He’s standing there holding this rod, lowering it down. No fall protection. And I’m like, holy shit. I’m just a young guy, I don’t know anything about this stuff. But that didn’t look right.

I was telling him afterwards, but he was some sort of a certified skill worker. I guess at that time they had some sort of certification that they didn’t have to tie off. Something to do with him being a steel worker. I remember that distinctly. At least I was smart enough to ask, but not really — well, these guys know, right? These guys know.

As I went through my career, you know, I always thought I was a safe person. I’ve been the guy, I’ve — “Oh, I’ve got to go all the way back to the office for my fall protection, I’ll just step up on this handrail here, and turn that valve real quick, I’m only going to do it for a second.”

I hate to admit it, but I’ve done those kind of things. And I’ve often thought, “Why would a person do that?” And for me it’s really about appreciating the consequence. I don’t think we really understand the consequence.

Seven years ago, a friend of mine lost his son, I worked with at Newmont. And I remember how horrible I felt. How bad I felt for him. But he buried his boy on a Saturday, and on Sunday my wife called me. There had been a car accident. We had lost our youngest daughter in a car accident.

I had a different feeling about what he was going through now. I was living it. And I had a different appreciation for what he was dealing with. His name was Clint Hyde. He just recently passed away from cancer. I used him for an example for myself. I knew that if he got through a week, maybe I could get through a week of dealing with something like that.

I’d share that story a lot when I was out there still mining. Because the appreciation, the understanding of what it means changes when you’ve lived it. My thing is, number one, I never want anyone to experience that. If I could stop anybody from having to experience that kind of thing, I’d do it.

I’ve had operators lose parts of their thumb, I’ve had them where they’re going to be fighting back issues now — You don’t understand what that guy is dealing with until you’re dealing with it. And you don’t want to understand.

So to me now, I’ve left full time mining a couple years ago, but when I was there I always tried to drive that message — listen and learn, because you don’t want to understand the consequences.

We’ve all taken shortcuts. We start losing focus, we’re tough, we can make it through, or whatever it is. You have to understand the consequences. And unfortunately, the only way to really understand the consequences is to live it.

So obviously we don’t want anyone to have to deal with that. I don’t want anyone to deal with losing a child. It is hell. It’s the definition of hell on earth is to bury your own child. And I don’t want anyone else to have to feel that, and I don’t want, the guys that work for me, I didn’t want their parents or their spouses or their children, their friends, their co-workers, I don’t want them to have to experience that, because it sucks. It’s shitty. Excuse my language.

It’s horrible.

It’s been seven years coming up this month. They say time heals all wounds. Some wounds don’t heal. You get tougher. A friend who helped me get through this, that’s what he told me one time. He said, Andrew, it’s not going to get easier, but you’re going to get tougher. And that’s about right. That’s true.

Andrew Collins - with Victoria

Andrew Collins with his daughter Victoria.

I take that lesson now. Now, do you step up on the handrail and turn the valve? No. Take the time. It’s not worth it. There’s nothing out there, not a single ounce of gold that we make. Not a dollar. You can have them all. You can have every dollar I’ve ever made, every dollar I ever will make. Just give me five more minutes with Victoria.

None of it’s worth it.

It is without a doubt, the absolute most important thing we do every single day is go home. Go home and see our wives and our babies. Because, I can tell you, when they’re gone, it sucks.

I wish I didn’t have to learn it that way. My full appreciation for what it means to go home safe. It shouldn’t have taken that to do that for me.

And my dad was, he was known for being a safe guy. As a matter of fact, he lost a job at FMC, and they had a survey of employees about safety, and comments got back to him, there were comments on there, “safety left this mine when Dave Collins did.” That’s the kind of guy he was. He wanted it safe.

And I learned that from him, but he had, I think, a better appreciation — well, maybe he had seen more things than I did growing up. When he was in Indonesia, I remember him coming home as a kid, I’m 3 to 8, where they had had bad accidents. And it impacted him a lot. So he had that appreciation, he wanted to make sure that his people were safe.

Processing gold

As the last gold downturn came around and things started to kind of contract, I got the opportunity to go work at the TCM job building a new plant and getting some commissioning opportunities. …

The whole idea behind that was, they were getting out of ore to feed the autoclaves, so they were getting ready to shut those down. It was a new leach process, getting rid of cyanide and carbon, using thiosulfate and resin to recover gold. What that did was it allowed them to keep the autoclaves running, which is another important thing, because if you’re shutting down plants, guess what, the people who are so important are starting to lose jobs, and that affects everything. …

I was excited about it because it was somewhat revolutionary, and it’s a little bit of a shame that it has not taken off more, it hasn’t had quite the success that project was designed for.

Brunson: At these mines, there’s different rock formations that you know have gold in them, so you’re looking for different chemicals to be able to pull that gold out of the rock. Thiosulfate and resin – who does the project that says, hey, these two chemicals are going to help pull this gold out of this certain type of rock?

Collins: Metallurgical engineers and researchers. Barrick had been working on that stuff. Barrick had a facility up in Vancouver that they inherited when they bought Placer Dome. They had a research facility up in Vancouver.

They call it a lixiviant to dissolve gold. They had been looking for something that would replace cyanide. Cyanide, right or wrong, it doesn’t have the best reputation. So they’ve always looked.

And of course miners and the mining industry have always looked for better ways and more effective ways to get gold. It started with panning gold. Used to use mercury to amalgamate small gold. Well, cyanide was a big deal because it was a way to concentrate very fine gold. It dissolves it, it was a way to concentrate that fine gold into a solution you can capture and recover. Been around for a long time.

But the mining industry has always looked at alternatives to cyanide. Even when I was in college. So that’s now 30 — a lot of years ago. My final year project, one of the projects I had was an opportunity to use ammonium bisulfate, to do a study on that. I chose to do a plant design instead of that project. When I was at Newmont, Newmont was testing it on heap leach. So, depending on what’s happening with the ore, those different lixiviants help, and that’s what happened here.

When it comes to gold mining, you have big gold, that you can see, that you can recover just by gravity techniques, you shake it and it falls to somewhere and you can recover that off. We don’t see that much, particularly in the kind of deposits we have in northeastern Nevada.

So then there’s the easy stuff. If you look at a mountain that’s full of gold, the top part above the water table has been oxidized. You hit that ore with cyanide, and it dissolves, and comes out. What carbon does is it absorbs that gold-cyanide complex. So those are real easy and you see those on heap leaches and you see those in oxide mills, depending on the grade and the economics of it, either just stick it on the pad and dribble solution through it, which picks out the gold, or you grind it up and put it in a tank and leach it that way. Use the carbon to pull it out.

On refractory ores, ores that aren’t amenable to that simple step of just cyanide leaching, you have to do other things. So there’s a number of different things.

My first mine was Echo Bay Minerals. We floated a pyrite concentrate. The pyrite and the gold were associated together. So now we’ve got it in a smaller mass. What we did was we just ground it to bug dust. Ground it very, very fine, and put a whole pile of cyanide on it, and we had, I can’t remember now, a 20 to 1 silver to gold ratio? For every ounce of gold we had 20 ounces of silver, so it took a lot of cyanide. So we would just pound it with cyanide, and wash that in thickeners, and then you have a solution of silver and gold. You put zinc dust into that, it precipitates out, and then you melt it. So there’s one way of dealing with a refractory ore. Float it, concentrate it.

Another way is, when I went to Newmont, they have a roasting process. Barrick up at their Goldstrike property also has a roaster. What a roaster does is what that ore that’s sitting above the water level has done over thousands and thousands of years. It just does it quicker. You hit it with heat and oxygen and it burns off the sulfides. So you have the sulfide minerals, the pyrite, and you also have — just like we use the carbon to pull the gold out of the solution in the tanks and in the leach circuit — well, there’s natural carbon. And if an ore has that and you hit it with cyanide, well, that natural carbon, we call it preg robbing, it pulls that gold out of the solution, and you lose it. It goes away with the tails. So the roaster will burn both of those.

Grover: A roaster is essentially a big oven, to oversimplify it.

Collins: To oversimplify it, yes, it’s a big oven. You blow air through it, kind of fluidize it. We’re talking 950 degrees Fahrenheit kind of temperatures. Put some oxygen in there, and off it goes. And then you use the same process, cyanide and carbon, to recover the gold out of that.

And an autoclave, you’re doing essentially the same thing. The difference with autoclaves is they’re not really good and very efficient at destroying the carbon. They’re really good at destroying an arsenic compound, arsenopyrite. In the Echo Bay days, we had pyrite crystal, arsenian pyrite is what it was called, but arsenopyrite does the same idea, and that encapsulates the gold, and you can’t leach it out of that. An autoclave dissolves that, so now your gold is amenable to leaching.

So what essentially was going on at Barrick is, Barrick had a lot of ore to feed that roaster with carbon. Same thing, autoclave it, neutralize it with lime, leach it the same way, cyanide and carbon. Except the carbon goes through an autoclave, a lot of the carbon will. So, what the gold thiosulphate compound does, the carbon doesn’t like that, it doesn’t absorb onto the carbon. So you could run that autoclave, running those ores, with carbon, and still recover the carbon, so that was the beauty of it.

Now, the problem is, you don’t have the carbon to absorb it anymore, so you have to have a resin, and these resins, they make resins specifically, you have them in water softeners, that’s the same idea. They’re formulated to specifically capture what you’re after. They have them for nickel, chrome. You can find resins for specific things. And these were designed by Barrick, or that process was designed by Barrick to do just that. …

Brunson: So what’s the recovery rate on these autoclaves, roasters, leach pads — with these big mining companies there’s a reason, with the material that they’re pulling out of the ground, they know that there’s so many ounces of gold per ton of material — Why would you run different processes for different materials?

Collins: It comes down all to economics. Obviously the very simplest thing to do is dig a hole and stick it on a pad. How hard is that? That’s as simple as it gets, as cheap as it gets.

Now as soon as you start complicating that – You can put a crusher in that process. Well, it costs money to run a crusher, and you have to have people, and you have to have power, and you have to have all that stuff to run that. So the more expensive you make the process, the more gold you need to be able to recover to pay for it. It doesn’t make any sense to spend a million dollars a day to make 500,000.

Then as you get to refractory ores, you can imagine, if you’re heating something up to 950 degrees and you’re pumping oxygen into it, you have to deal with all the nasty stuff that that generates, because that generates sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, and all that stuff has to be dealt with, that has to be treated.

You make an acidic solution, autoclaves come out acidic, you use sulfuric acid to help drive that reaction. Now you have to neutralize that, because if you’re using cyanide, if it’s low pH cyanide, it gasses off. That’s a bad thing. So it gets more and more expensive. So you need more and more gold to be able to do that.

So for example, there are heap leach operations now that are running ores that have 0.005—that’s pretty low, but 0.01 for sure, ounces of gold per ton. There are heap leaches right now treating that kind of ore. With 0.01 ounces per ton, it takes 100 tons of ore to make one ounce of gold.

I may get my numbers wrong, but with an oxide mill, probably 0.03 to 0.04 is kind of the low end that you can run and still make some money. The roasters and the autoclaves, they’re going to be looking at 0.8, 0.1 ounce per ton kind of numbers to make money.

Depending on what the process is, depending on how much gold you have — There’s ore that you sit on the heap leach that if you ground it up and leached it, it’s going to get a lot better recovery. The heap leach will get 60 to 80 percent recovery. Eighty is really high for a heap leach, actually. A mill might get 85 to 90 percent recovery. Well, that’s good to get more of the gold, but you have to put all that more power into it.

How much does it cost to treat a ton of ore on a heap leach? It costs a buck. How much does it cost to run it through a mill? Ten bucks. So you need 10 times the gold. I’m just throwing out quick numbers, it’s not that simple – but you have to go through all that process to make up for it. It’s better recovery, you’ll get maybe 30 percent more gold, but it’s costing you 10 times, or five times.

Grover: I think that helps, though, because I think the average listener doesn’t understand – “Oh, I’ve got gold in my driveway” – you’re absolutely right, you do – but what does it take to get that gold out at a sustainable cost, at a pace that you can continue to make money off of?

Collins: That’s right. The biggest repository of gold in the world is the ocean. But there’s so little in there that we’re not going to recover it. It’s the same idea all the way through the process. And that’s why geologists and mining engineers and metallurgists have jobs is to figure that out.

Grover: Absolutely. And what I would say is there’s a very high level of technical understanding that has to go into that in order for all this stuff to make a bar of gold.

Collins: Absolutely. Back to old Jesse Bonales. Sitting there looking at that pallet of gold that he’s putting on a truck. And he’s thinking about all that has gone into it. To the person who — Someone’s got to come in and clean the floors in our lunchrooms where we’re eating. Everybody’s got a role.

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