Can you elaborate on how Gold Fields was able to stick to the construction schedule of Salares Norte amid the pandemic?
Since engineering, procurement and construction plans were finalized in advance and approved in February of 2020, it allowed the project timeline to be ahead of schedule. Therefore, when the outbreak started, we decided to accelerate some of our purchase orders and the construction plan execution. Construction platforms to begin working on temporary facilities started in April, and the earthwork in September. Meanwhile, the construction of the camp was divided into two stages: phase one which started on time, and phase two that was scheduled for October but was instead rescheduled. A decision was also made to add an additional building to increase the number of beds in the camp, to comply with Covid-19 social distancing restrictions.
Production is scheduled for early 2023, not considering any significant Covid-related delays, as announced before the outbreak. By next winter we will have 1,400 workers on-site, therefore, if we encounter further logistical delays, the expected production may change.
How does this project compare to other Gold Fields’ assets around the world?
This asset has very unique characteristics compared to other Gold Fields assets. All our gold plants are located in Australia, West Africa and South Africa, which host a very different climate and altitude compared to Chile and we are also using different technology. The geology is also unique due to its gold and silver content. Cerro Corona in Peru is similar in terms of altitude but not in technology since it is a copper mine.
What technology are you relying on to ensure the mine’s efficiency through automation?
We have incorporated certain contemporary mining aspects into the design, such as adopting filtered dry stacked tailings in preference to the construction of a conventional tailings dam. By dewatering the tailings prior to placement we will achieve a significant reduction in water consumption, reduction in tailings footprint and improved physical stability of the tailings facility.
We are in the process of deploying a private LTE telecommunications network to support our digitalization strategy and to enhance safety across the site. The LTE network will form the backbone of the mine and plant communications and will allow for the remote operation of certain equipment, e.g. production drill rigs and rock breakers.
The design includes a modern integrated operations control room at Salares Norte which will oversee both mining and processing activities. The process plant is equipped with a high degree of automation implemented over the distributed control system and advanced process control will be implemented once the plant reaches steady production. Site operational data will also be relayed in real-time to a remote monitoring room in Santiago where a team of specialists will analyse the data with the aim to enhance operational performance.
The project will implement a hybrid microgrid to provide electrical energy, with approximately 18% of the energy being supplied from solar power. This level of solar penetration is near the theoretical limit as the system will operate exclusively in island mode. The use of solar energy will decrease our carbon footprint and ensure project sustainability. We will continue to evaluate options to introduce more renewables and other green technologies into our energy matrix going forward.
Considering the bullish appetite for gold, will Gold Fields focus on exploration in the region?
Since the discovery of Salares Norte deposit in 2011, we have never ceased exploration activities in the district and have drilled several near-by exploration targets. As the Salares Norte project was consolidated in 2017, we started to allocate more resources to increase exploration in the surrounding 20 km. Drilling has begun for different targeted plots. However, it is a long-term systematic process that could take years, so it is too early to conclude that there will be another deposit. We are also considering opportunities beyond.
What are Gold Fields’ vision and strategy in South America in the upcoming years?
We are looking to consolidate our position around Salares Norte and create a pipeline of projects. We are also open to other opportunities that may be present in the Atacama or other regions.
In Peru, Gold Fields also is looking to make feasible new projects that give continuity or expand our presence in this country.