While Neal Froneman has resigned as Gold One International CEO, his vision for a large-scale, significant gold and uranium surface retreatment business, which will dominate the West Rand is well on its way to being realised, writes Laura Cornish.

JSE and ASX-listed Gold One International’s business has always been an evolving one. The company has grown through a series of value accretive acquisitions; from a small gold junior with a single gold producing asset (Modder East) in 2009 to a mid-tier entity with multiple gold assets in various life cycle stages.

Following the successful closing of the Rand Uranium transaction in January 2012, the company has fully implemented the separation of the Randfontein-based operations into two distinct business units, namely Randfontein surface operations and the Cooke underground operations.

As part of the Rand Uranium transaction, Gold One also acquired a proven high quality, low risk, ready-to-build uranium development project with substantial growth potential. The primary focus of the Cooke uranium project is the construction of a uranium metallurgical plant to treat the high grade Cooke tailings deposit containing uranium grades three to four times the average of the district.

Froneman’s vision for Gold One was always to create a major dedicated and distinguishable surface strategy business, not only aimed at recovering the residual gold, but also the residual sulphur and uranium to address the re-deposition of the tailings in accordance with modern sustainable deposition practices, ultimately supporting mine closure in an environmentally sustainable manner,” says Dick Plaistowe, senior vice president: surface operations at Gold One.

Plaistowe was appointed to his position in August 2011, and is wholly focused on ensuring Gold One’s vision for its surface business is achieved.

A year down the line since the Rand Uranium acquisition, the objective to deliver a world-class, large-scale surface retreatment company is well under way. The surface business aims to exploit the low risk, high margin characteristics of the vast surface resources, with a focus on:

  • optimising the value from the current Randfontein surface retreatment facility
  • prove and develop a joint venture value proposition through consolidation of the West Rand tailings deposits.
Optimisation of current surface operations (Phase 1)

“The first project phase will see the optimisation of the existing surface retreatment operation with an increase in processing capacity and a transition from mechanical to hydraulic reclamation. The upgrade and subsequent expansion of the existing Randfontein-based Cooke processing plant from its current 300 000 tpm capacity to 400 000 is scheduled for completion towards the end of 2013,” Plaistowe notes. Gold One is in the process of finalising finance for this, estimated to cost about R230 million.

The plant is currently treating material from the adjacent Dump 20 (situated between Randfontein and Krugersdorp), which to date still contains 14 Mt of material. With the addition of another 6 Mt from the nearby Lindum dumps, a constant feed throughout will run for another four and a half years (at the increased production volumes) to 2018.

Plaistowe explains that the major components of the plant can already handle the expanded capacity, with plant modifications required for the linear screens, changing the carbon-in-leach configuration to a carbon-in-pulp leach configuration and upgrading the booster pump station to a high pressure pumping station.

The majority of the finance is for the construction and installation of a pipeline that will transfer the reclamation slurry to the plant. “We have appointed the piping contract to Mocke Pipeline Construction to handle this project portion. HDP lining and continuous weld long length pipes to ensure no spills or leaks and lower operating costs will ensure the piping is sustainable over a long period at such high volumes.”

The Cooke plant was constructed in 1978 and initially treated the high grade ores from the adjacent Cooke shafts.

Consolidation of the West Rand (Phase 2)

Gold One’s Randfontein surface operation currently operates in a region with a long history of gold and uranium mining. The area contains numerous old tailings facilities, many of which contain recoverable grades of gold and uranium. The West Rand has an estimate of over 1 Bnt of tails (within a 70 km radius of the Cooke gold plant) on surface. The contained gold in many of these tailings dams is economic, even without the impact of uranium synergies with other tailings owners.

Following the conclusion of the Rand Uranium acquisition, Gold One announced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with gold major, Gold Fields to investigate the viability of concurrently reprocessing their combined surface tailings deposits, which are all located on the West Rand region of the Witwatersrand Basin. Grant Stuart, vice president: investor relations at Gold One is leading the project.

Gold Fields has subsequently unbundled all but one of its South African assets into a new entity, Sibanye Gold, with Froneman appointed CEO.

Together, the companies are jointly investigating the feasibility of establishing a joint venture (JV) company into which both parties will contribute surface assets for retreatment. These assets are expected to comprise in excess of 700 Mt from 16 historical tailings deposits and represent over 60% of the total tailings material in the region.

This volume of material is sufficient to develop what could be the world’s largest tailings reclamation plant – at this stage possibly 4 Mtpm producing at steady state, approximately 180 000 oz and 3.5 lbs per annum, ultimately for about 20 years. The intention, however, is to reach this capacity through a phased, modular approach over a three- to five-year period. The Cooke uranium project forms part of the JV study.

Major mining engineering houses Tenova Bateman and MDM Engineering have completed various studies for the project. The scoping study, concluded in 2012, has shown sufficient value and risk reduction synergies and a positive decision to proceed to a pre-feasibility study has been taken in this regard. The merits of utilising existing and planned metallurgical plant infrastructure as well as strategic phasing of capital and scheduling of available feed sources will be optimised during the pre-feasibility study, expected to be completed by the third quarter of 2013.

Sidebar: Plaistowe is the right man for the job

Plaistowe has some 20 years of experience in the surface retreatment business and was the CEO responsible for the listing of Crown Consolidated Gold Recoveries (now incorporated within DRDGold) on the JSE in 1997. He also established Mine Waste Solutions in 2000, a company conceived by Plaistowe to remediate on degraded mine environments through the reclamation, reprocessing and re-desposition of mine tailings and waste material.

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