Academic Director

In conversation with Dirk Van Zyl

The Academic Director of UBC’s new Certificate in Global Mine Waste Management program, Dirk Van Zyl is an internationally renowned mining engineering expert with more than four decades of experience in tailings and wine waste management. We spoke with Dirk in June 2020 to learn about this innovative certificate program.

What led you to create this post-graduate certificate?

Most people learn about mine waste management on the job. And each company approaches it a little differently. It’s not that one approach is correct and another is wrong – just that each company will bring a different level of detail and understanding to the issues at play.

We saw a need to take a more systematic approach – one where mining industry professionals could come together and learn from leaders in the field. We wanted to create a program taught by industry leaders that really focused on the state of practice through case studies and discussions on mine waste management, mine site management and risk management.

What makes this program innovative?

As far as we know, this is the only graduate-level program of its kind. No other institution has pulled together this curriculum taught by leading practitioners.

We know that it’s unrealistic to ask people working in this field to take a year or two away from their careers to do a graduate degree, so we’ve created a hybrid model that blends online and in-person sessions, making it easier for people to complete the degree while continuing to work.

The in-person sessions happen over two weeks, with students coming together at UBC’s campus in Vancouver and learning from and networking with professionals in this area. Vancouver has the largest concentration of mine waste practitioners in the world and they will be connecting with students on campus, as well as during field trips to mines.

Our students will graduate with credits for four graduate courses. This means that once you complete the certificate, you can easily ladder into a Master of Engineering or Master of Applied Science degree at UBC and would only need to complete an additional four courses plus an engineering report to obtain an M.Eng. or two courses plus a thesis to obtain an MASc.

Who is taking this program?

Our first cohort began in February 2020. They’re a wonderful mix of people, with most working in industry and a couple working as consultants. There are some senior people who have been promoted to management positions in mine waste and who want to deepen their technical skills in this specific area. Others are at an earlier stage in their careers. Our hope is that this program will develop an international group of practitioners in mine waste management who will continue to connect with and learn from each other.

Can you tell us about your background in mine waste management?

I’ve worked for many decades in both academia and consulting, with a focus on tailings management, mining closures and sustainable development. I’ve been involved as a consultant after the fact on recent catastrophic tailings failures at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia and at the Samarco mine in Brazil. You could see in these cases that if different decisions been made to minimize risk we could have avoided environmental and human tragedy.

The global concern that arose after the failure of Vale’s tailings dam in Brumadinho, Brazil – which killed more than 250 people – spurred the desire on the part of many stakeholders to develop an international standard for the safe management of tailings storage facilities.

Over the past year I have been very busy as one of seven members of an expert panel tasked with developing a Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management. There were three co-convenors on this project – the International Council on Mining & Metals, the United Nations Environment Programme and the Principles for Responsible Investment – and I and the other members of the panel spent much time during the past year travelling to many locations around the world to prepare the standard.

The standard outlines a storage facility classification system with requirements for each classification level, a system for independent reviews of tailing storage facilities and requirements for emergency planning. What’s key is its integrated approach: in essence, the standard sets out a broader and integrated view of the environmental, social, technical and governance aspects to be considered in designing and managing tailings storage facilities.

Anything else you want to share?

We hope that this certificate will enable professionals in the field to build their career path in tailings management and that it will help push this area forward in terms of best practice. We’re welcoming our next cohort of students in September and are excited to see the connections developing between students and industry leaders as they advance the state of practice in this field.

Dirk van Zyl is professor and chair of Mining and the Environment at the University of British Columbia. He has more than 40 years’ experience in research, teaching and consulting in tailings and mine rock structures. In the past decade much of his attention has focused on mining and sustainable development.