Basics of an open pit mine

Photo of Magma Copper's Open Pit Mine In Arizona

Fig. 1, above shows an illustration of a Open Pit Surface Mine. The definition of a open pit mine is "an excavation or cut made at the surface of the ground for the purpose of extracting ore and which is open to the surface for the duration of the mine’s life." To expose and mine the ore, it is generally necessary to excavate and relocate large quantities of waste rock. The main objective in any commercial mining operation is the exploitation of the mineral deposit at the lowest possible cost with a view of maximizing profits. The selection of physical design parameters and the scheduling of the ore and waste extraction program are complex engineering decisions of enormous economic significance. The planning of an open pit mine is, therefore, basically an exercise in economics, constrained by certain geologic and mining engineering aspects.

A bench may be defined as a ledge that forms a single level of operation above which mineral or waste materials are mined back to a bench face. The mineral or waste is removed in successive layers, each of which is a bench. Several benches may be in operation simultaneously in different parts of, and at different elevations in the open pit mine.

Open pit mines can be used in coal mining, and they are used extensively in "hard rock" mining for ores such as metal ores, copper, gold, iron, aluminum, and many minerals. In a open pit coal mine, the pit bottom would be the bottom mined coal seam elevation, since it is usually feasible to extract multiple seams when surface mining coal. In a hard rock mine, the bottom of the pit would be the lowest level (elevation) that mining would be conducted on the ore being mined.

Planning must account for both environmental protection, beginning as early as the initial exploration, and for reclamation. It is critical that planning alleviate or mitigate potential impacts of mining for two key reasons: (1) the cost of environmental protection is minimized by incorporating it into the initial design, rather than performing remedial measures to compensate for design deficiencies, and (2) negative publicity or poor public relations may have severe economic consequences. From the start of the planning process, adequate consideration must be given to regulatory affairs. The cost of compliance may be significantly reduced when taken into account in the design or planning process, in a proactive manner, rather than being addressed on an ad hoc basis as problems develop or enforcement actions occur.

From the beginning of the mine design planning stage, data gathering and permitting, environmental considerations are important, although benefits from a strictly economic sense may be intangible. From exploration, where core holes must be sealed and the site reclaimed, through plan development, the impacts on the environment must be considered. These impacts include aesthetics, noise, air quality (dust and pollutants), vibration, water discharge and runoff, subsidence, and process wastes; sources include the underground and surface mine infrastructure, mineral processing plant, access or haul roads, remote facilities, etc. If mining will cause quality deterioration of either surface water or groundwater, remedial and treatment measures must be developed to meet discharge standards. The mine plan must include all the technical measures necessary to handle all the environmental problems from initial data gathering to the mine closure and reclamation of the disturbed surface area.

Reclamation plans include many of the following concerns: drainage control, preservation of top soil, segregation of waste material, erosion and sediment control, solid waste disposal, control of fugitive dust, regrading, and restoration of waste and mine areas. The plan must also consider the effects of mine subsidence, vibration (induced by mining, processing, transport, or subsidence), and impact on surface water and groundwater. These environmental items often dictate the economics of a planned mining operation and determine its viability.


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