NuWater’s innovative mine wastewater treatment plants and related services are making a measurable impact on mine drainage water management, both in South Africa and abroad, CEO John Holmes tells Inside Mining.

Dealing effectively with mine drainage water in a cost-effective manner is critical to the sustainability of the mining sector, not just in South Africa but around the world. The demand for water continues to rise, as do the expectations of the voting public when it comes to accessing to safe water and the protection of the environment.

The time when the benefits of the mining sector were considered to be greater than the potential, or actual, adverse environmental impact has long gone. There are numerous case studies showing the long-term, real economic and social impacts of inadequate water management and treatment in the sector.

As the mining industry as a whole struggles to secure its long-term future in South Africa, the question is whether it can afford to adequately tackle mine drainage water treatment for its ongoing operations, let alone addressing legacy mine drainage water issues.

Mining is a great proving ground

According to Holmes, “NuWater continues to demonstrate that its modular, rapidly deployable, and redeployable, plants have a significant role to play both in the mining sector and in the broader water and wastewater treatment sectors. The mining sector has, however, been a great proving ground for our solutions given its particular treatment challenges and commercial demands.”

To start with, a mine’s water treatment requirements can vary significantly over time, both in terms of the nature and quantities of water to be treated. In addition, the capital budgets of almost all mines are under significant pressure. This means that water treatment service providers are increaingly expected to provide a complete water treatment service, including the funding of capital equipment, rather than simply selling equipment.

The challenges for water treatment companies operating in the mining sector are threefold. First, there is the technical challenge of dealing with variable water specifications. This may mean variabilities in both suspended and dissolved solids that must both be reliably reduced in order to either reuse or discharge the treated water back into the environment.

Funding challenge

Second, there is the funding challenge, whereby customers expect service providers to fund the capital cost of the equipment and recover this over time, or as a function of the volume of water treated. This funding challenge is made all the more difficult by the fact that customers are often recluctant to commit to contract periods of more than two or three years at a time due to the reduced visibility of their own businesses.

Finally, there is the operational challenge. Mines are challenging places to operate both for men and machines, and are highly regulated in terms of health and safety. The operational efficiency and reliability, of both service provision and equipment, are therefore critical to ensuring the commercial viability of water treatment projects.

Three years ago NuWater undertook an ambitious project for Anglo American’s thermal coal operations to provide a complete, large-scale mine wastewater treatment and desalination solution for the New Vaal colliery on a build, own and operate basis. This experience, and the success demonstrated to date, has positioned the company uniquely to roll-out its mine drainage water treatment solutions to the mining sector.

Anglo’s New Vaal

Jeeten Nathoo, NuWater’s chief technology officer, explains that in the case of New Vaal the plant was also required to deal with high suspended solids loads and to reduce dissolved solids, or dissolved salts, to acceptable limits for discharge back into the environment. “Fortunately we had the technology,” says Nathoo. This included the company’s patented 16″ reverse osmosis technology. The end result was “a highly compact and high-capacity plant design that has become the cornerstone of our product offering.”

NuWater was able to start delivering high-quality water from the mine’s wastewater storage dam within weeks of signing the initial contract, as the plant modules were trailer-based and could therefore be quickly moved onto the simple levelled site. There is minimal fixed infrastructure, which means the plant can be easily and quickly redeployed should the mine’s wastewater treatment requirements change.

The plant has produced an astonishing 12 billion litres of high-quality water since its commissioning. To further enhance the success and environmental credentials of this project, the water produced is of such a high quality that it has all been used by the neighbouring Lethabo power station as cooling water, reducing the water demand on the Vaal River.

Flexible and adaptable

NuWater’s plant is also the largest completely modular and mobile water treatment and desalination plant in the world. “What this has proved is that our plants address both short- and longer-term requirements, and provide the flexibility to adapt to our customers’ changing requirements.

“NuWater’s concept of ‘modular and mobile’ plants was unheard of before our success at New Vaal, and even now new customers are surprised to find out that such a solution exists, and has been demonstrated so successfully,” says Nathoo.

Holmes adds: “Our ongoing success at New Vaal continues to help us change perceptions of how the mine drainage water challenge can be tackled. Our plant designs, engineering capabilities, operational commitment and ability to finance large-scale projects simply reinforce our credentials as arguably the premier solutions provider in South Africa.”

Ghana plant for Gold Fields

NuWater’s success in the South African mining sector has not gone unnoticed. The company is in the final stages of commissioning its third modular plant in Ghana to treat mine drainage water for Gold Fields.

According to Holmes, NuWater is seeing the same mine drainage water challenges around the world. There are very few service providers that have demonstrated success in delivering the flexible and cost-effective solutions demanded by the mining industry.

“The scale and complexity of the mine drainage water treatment challenge can be overwhelming. We have seen a number of competitors try, and fail, to replicate our plant designs. NuWater is the only service provider in South Africa that has demonstrated the capability to deliver large-scale mine drainage water treatment as a service, with the customer paying for the water treated, rather than having to fund the capital cost of the plant upfront and taking on the project risk itself.

Growing track record

“Our customers appreciate the fact that we are prepared to take on the technology, operational and financing risks related to these complex projects. Our growing track record of success provides them with the peace of mind that allows them to focus on their core business of mining,” comments Holmes.

While it is apparent there is no silver bullet to address the mine drainage challenge, NuWater is clearly demonstrating how forward-looking customers, and the broader mining industry, can benefit from its innovative treatment solutions and services.

The adoption of proven solutions and services will also help drive down costs as economies of scale are realised, bringing the reality of affordable mine drainage water treatment a step closer. “NuWater will no doubt continue to play an important role in shaping the solution to the mine drainage water treatment challenge,” concludes Holmes.