Sunday, November 30, 2014

Review: Severed

Published 29 November 2014 in the Winnipeg Free Press:

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found
By Frances Larson
Granta, 336 pages, $30

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

With Islamic State's decapitation of hostages making headlines and leading newscasts the world over, the subject of British anthropologist Frances Larson's new work of popular history is timely.
Larson, an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford, has written a smart and engaging history of how Western society's fascination with human heads has extended to collecting and displaying them.
Severed is written for a general audience, though some prospective readers may cringe at its subject matter. Those who get past their discomfort are in for a treat.
The brutal execution videos from Syria have understandably repulsed and horrified people here. Yet it wasn't so long ago that Europeans crowded town squares to watch heads get lopped off, and centuries-old heads are on display in churches and museums.
Saint Oliver Plunkett's more-than-300-year-old head, with some hair still clinging to its slowly decaying flesh, is in a glass case at a church in Ireland, just as Saint Catherine of Siena's is kept as a divine relic in Italy.
Perhaps the most famous and talked-about part of Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum is its collection of shrunken heads from South America.
The place decapitation still holds in popular culture is reflected by enduring figures of speech such as "head on a platter" (a reference to John the Baptist's execution) and "don't lose your head."
Fascination with heads and their separation from bodies is hardly surprising, Larson notes, when you consider that our faces express our personalities and our heads host four of the five senses.
Chopping a head off, then, is a powerful denunciation of what a person has done, and keeping a head on display at a place of worship is an expression of profound reverence.
Sometimes keeping a head or skull can be an expression of deep respect or admiration, such as when a church sexton in Vienna swiped composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's skull.
Other times it has nothing to do with respect and admiration. Larson writes that the shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum are remnants of "an international trade in exotic collectibles" in the 19th century, when European colonials offered cash and goods for human heads.
In the 20th century, some American soldiers in Vietnam and the Second World War's Pacific theatre kept skulls as trophies. Life magazine sparked outrage in 1944 by publishing a photo of a pretty Arizona woman with a gift her navy boyfriend had sent her: a Japanese soldier's skull.
Indeed, Larson remarks, "The physical detachment of a person's head is often preceded by an assumed social detachment that separates the perpetrator from his victim. This social detachment has often taken the form of racism."
Perceptive and well-written, Severed is a great read even if its subject seems at odds with the holiday season.
It's also, as one might expect of an academic's work, thoroughly researched. The bibliography runs to nearly 30 pages, and Larson promises "detailed notes" at her website.
Larson has a good head. This book is evidence of that.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Using 'Molecular Sponges' to Clean Water and Recover Metals

Published in Mid-Canada Forestry & Mining, Fall 2014:
Leonardo da Vinci said, "Water is the driving force of life," and there's great truth in that simple declarative statement. More than two-thirds of our planet's surface is water, and our own bodies are mostly that compound of hydrogen and oxygen. Water sustains us; our very survival depends on the availability of water for drinking and growing food. Water is essential.

It's no surprise then that mining's impact on water resources is such an important issue and a perennial source of controversy. We need mining products for our cellphones, cars and trucks, plumbing, wiring and countless other physical components of modern civilization, but we need clean water for life itself. Minimizing the impact on rivers, streams, lakes, aquifers and oceans is, then, a crucial prerequisite for societal permission to extract minerals from the ground.

An Ontario company may have just the right technology for mining companies striving to soften environmental impact so that they can get the green light for new operations. The answer, curiously, lies in things we can't see with the naked eye: nanometer-sized organic polymers that can take out toxins and recover precious metals.

NANOSTRUCK TECHNOLOGIES

Headquartered in Mississauga, NanoStruck Technologies Inc. is a young firm with a suite of technologies that can remove molecule-sized particles from water via absorptive polymers derived from natural sources. Under the NanoPure brand, these organic polymers can be used to clean out hydrocarbons, acids, pathogens and other toxins in water. Mining companies will be particularly interested in the NanoMet processes for recovering gold, silver, palladium and other precious metal particles.

Bundeep Singh Rangar, NanoStruck's CEO and Chairman, says the removal of contaminants via "molecular sponges" is "a much cheaper and organic alternative to conventional methods that use either chemical processes or reverse osmosis processes – both of which are either environmentally not the best or capital and optics wise not the cheapest."

Reverse osmosis requires big spending on electricity to pump water at high pressure, he continues. "Our process is a lot cheaper because we don't have high-pressure systems. Ours is, I would say, more natural."

Rangar explains that the NanoStruck water-cleaning process has three basic stages. First comes a stage of removing the relatively large pieces of junk. Then there's electrolysis – "we zap the water," he says. In the third step, the polymers remove very small particles.

"That's where these molecular sponges are very active in removing the contaminants," he remarks. "What you've got at the end of that third stage is water that's very clean for environmental disposal or reuse in industrial and agricultural purposes.

"If you need to take it to a drinking-water potable situation, then you take it to a stage four, which is a bacterial purification using ozone gas or ultraviolet light or, sometimes, ultrasonic resonance.

"So, depending on the client requirements, there's two things we do: One, we take it to either stage three or stage four, depending on whether the water is intended for non-human or human consumption; and the second thing we do, which is very unique to our business model, is that we program those polymers for the specific contaminants that we found in the water.

"So when we first start with a client, we get water samples from them and we determine the contaminants via lab analysis. The chitosan copolymers are programmed for removal of the specific set of contaminants. That's the unique nature around our patent of those copolymers – the 'tuneability' of those copolymers.

"If the water sample comes from an oil refinery, for example, it will have a high degree of hydrocarbons in it. If it comes from a landfill site, it may have other pathogens like mercury or heavy metals. If it comes from a farm, it will have more bacteria and other organic waste. It really depends on what water we're treating. It is configured for the copolymers that are the most effective there.

"When we went to the mining sector to remediate their water, they said 'This is very interesting. We need to clean up our water as part of our social responsibility for our mining contract. But if you can remove metals in stage two and stage three, then you've got a whole different business model of removing precious metals from the tailings that we leave behind in our initial primary mining activities.'

"And that, as you know is a huge business. So that started developing over the course of 2012, 2013, but it really has taken form most in the last year as we've fleshed that out. We've gone from the embryonic technology two years ago to one that's now proven across different tailing samples that we've obtained from different parts of the world."

GOLD, SLIVER & PLATINUM

Rangar says NanoMet, the company's metals-extraction process, has physical, chemical and organic components. The physical part involves grinding mine tailings down to small particles and getting the heavier and lighter contents to separate. "You get some retrieval there," he says, "but as you can imagine there's a physical barrier as to how far down you can grind and mill down the tailings because it will eventually become too dusty."

Chemistry comes into play, he continues, when "we take the tailings and mix it with an acid solution which then effectively leaches out the precious metals into a solution. That's where we've got a remarkably high level of precious metals from tailings. We're talking 85 to 96 percent recovery of the precious metals away from those tailings into that leach solution.

"Now the question is: Once you've got it in this solution, how do you get it out? That's where the organic polymers we have play a role."

The polymers, made from crustacean shells, can be programmed to extract specific types of metal particles out of a solution, according to Rangar. He says NanoStruck's process has proven very successful in fetching silver, gold and platinum group metals from tailings. "On silver tailing samples from Mexico … we have had a 93% recovery rate, which again is incredibly high because the best anyone could do was about 20%. And we've got similarly high rates in platinum and palladium."

NanoStruck signed a letter of intent in February with Tierra Nuevo Mining to explore the potential of using the still-developing NanoMet technology to extract gold and silver from tailings at a Tierra Nuevo operation in Mexico. Rangar was quoted in a news release as saying the new arrangement "greatly accelerates the development and go-to-market strategy of our unique mine tailings processing technology."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review: Technocreep

Published 13 September 2014 in the Winnipeg Free Press:

Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy
By Thomas P. Keenan
Greystone Books, 263 pages, $23

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

By now, surely everyone who has been paying attention knows information technology has compromised our privacy. Surveillance cameras are ubiquitous, business and government track us online, and Facebook has an Everest of user data that it sells to other companies.
So Thomas Keenan isn't exploring much new ground in his book about the "unseen ways" that technology is being used to invade our privacy and try to separate us from our money.
The Calgary-based computer security expert, university professor and journalist has, however, assembled a thorough accounting of ways technology has perniciously crept into our lives.
The title refers to both the "creepy" feeling some uses of technology can give you, and the forward creep or evolution of technology and its uses.
One example of the former is how the FootPath system tracks customers' movements at shopping malls via their cellphones.
Then there's the iPhone app called Girls Around Me, which enables young men on the prowl to identify women in the vicinity who've checked in on Facebook and Foursquare.
An example of the forward creep of technology is... well, evident in everything about every kind of tracking and surveillance technology. It has become more efficient, less expensive and so commonplace that its absence is more remarkable than its presence.
Proprietors of small corner stores can buy security cameras for $50 apiece, and your smartphone sends signals that people can use to keep track of where you go. And that's just for starters.
"Many people believe that these disturbing technologies are confined to the Internet and that if they are careful, or even avoid online activity altogether, they will be safe," Keenan writes in the introduction. "But the technologies that will truly change our lives will be in our cars, our streetlights, our hospitals, and even inside our brains and bodies. Our favourite watering holes, and even our pets and our children, are being infested with technocreepiness."
The creep is so diverse and so unpredictable that lawmakers couldn't keep up even if they wanted to. And the way governments have been spying on their own citizens suggests that legislators are, at best, ambivalent.
Keenan says the public tends to learn about high-tech threats to its privacy in an "episodic" way, as stories of spying and other privacy intrusion appear in the news.
That's true, but his book often feels episodic as well -- chapters are packed with one anecdote after another. Because Keenan isn't skilled at transitions, most chapters feel like information snacking rather than finished entrées.
Technocreep is suitable for mass readership; you don't have to be a technology expert like Keenan, who is good at explaining things to us non-experts.
He does commit one egregious sin in communication, however, when he uses postal abbreviations for states and provinces (VA for Virginia and AB for Alberta, for example).
Postal abbreviations are for envelopes, not books. Keenan should know that, and certainly the book's editor should.
Keenan ends Technocreep with a sort of call to action -- or "a call to conspiracy," as he puts it, saying readers should engage in forums and "stay informed, speak out, and vote on technocreepiness."
Before that, he offers suggestions on what you can do in your own life to find out who's watching you online and then reduce the intrusion. Most of the suggestions are easily followed, though it would take considerable time and effort to follow them all.
We can do things to fight back, he says, but "creepier things are coming our way" and the technocreep is inescapable.
"You have been warned."

Friday, August 22, 2014

Carriers and Insurers Unite to Tackle Cargo Theft

Published in Western Canada Highway News, Summer 2014:
The theft of a truck in Mexico last December grabbed worldwide attention because of something the truck was carrying: radioactive waste that terrorists could use to make a “dirty bomb.”
Eventually, after much public fretting and some sharp police work, the truck and its dangerous contents were located. Six people (one of them showing signs of radiation sickness) were arrested. The situation was brought back to “normal” within days of the heist.
That story was exceptional for its drama and potentials, but theft of truck cargo of all kinds is not so exceptional. In fact, it’s a common and growing concern across North America.
Closer to home, for example, there was the September 2013 theft of a trailer containing an estimated $100,000 worth of frozen beef from a truck yard in the Niagara region. Eleven months earlier, $10,000 worth of meat was stolen from a lot elsewhere in southern Ontario.
In Regina last November 30, a truck containing 1,500 cases of liquor was stolen. It was found empty and abandoned, all of its approximately $500,000 in intoxicating freight gone. The Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority, the booze’s intended recipient, said the carrier would have to cover the loss.
Cargo crime, which includes theft, fraud and hijacking, is a huge problem. “We had one insurer say it was a $5-billion problem in Canada,” Jennifer Fox – Vice President, Trade and Security, of the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) – told CBC News shortly after the Hamilton beef incident. “I actually think that’s an understatement of how prevalent the problem is.”
In March 2014, CTA and the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) expanded their Cargo Theft Reporting pilot program from Ontario and Quebec to include all parts of Canada. Carriers across the country can now report cargo crime via an online form. The numbers will be crunched and information will be shared with a national network of law enforcement partners, including border agencies.
“This expanded and improved reporting process will help prevent crimes and lead to faster recovery of stolen goods and prosecution of cargo theft criminals,” IBC’s Garry Robertson says.

STOLEN OVERNIGHT

Mike Gerber of Monarch Insurance Brokers in Edmonton says cargo thefts often “seem to follow a common pattern in that they involve loads that aren’t secure – I mean, not in an enclosed trailer and locked. [Drivers or staff] just leave the loads overnight, and they come there in the morning and the load’s gone. If the trailer isn’t in an enclosed area, [thieves] will take the entire thing. They’ll drive away with it, and the cargo won’t be seen again.
“Lots of times they don’t know what they’re stealing, but with the economy being the way it is in Alberta they figure there’s a good chance that whatever is in the trailer is worth some money. They’ll just take their loot, whatever happens to be in there, and try and make do.”
The rising incidence of theft “has put pressure on the cost of cargo insurance,” Evan Di Bella, Claims Director at Northbridge Insurance, says from Toronto. “The insurance industry has had to pay out more in cargo claims in recent years, and that cost gets reflected in rates.”
There are safety measures that any trucking company can and should take to reduce the risk of cargo theft. For example, every firm should have a “loss prevention committee” whose members are empowered to “think like a thief” and look for cracks in business practices that might present opportunities for a thief – and then, of course, act to address those deficiencies.
That tip gets a thumbs-up from Cheryl Talbott, Senior Account Executive at McLean & Shaw Insurance in Edmonton, who says “awareness is certainly key to prevention.”
Another tip is to assign high-value loads to more experienced employees only. As well, see that drivers make frequent call-ins so that the load’s whereabouts are always known, and/or use technology such as RFID tags to track the load’s progress.
Once high-value cargo reaches its destination, you should avoid storing high-value cargo on-site for longer than necessary. Weekend storage is especially risky, as the Journal of Commerce recently reported that about 70 to 75 percent of cargo thefts occur during that time.
Also, adds Northbridge’s Di Bella, “make sure that loads are delivered before the destination is closed for the day.” Coming in late can mean the trailer is left unattended an insecure location. It’s crucial to have a secured facility for overnight and weekend storage.
SGI Canada’s Barry Peabody says there’s a “risk triad” related to cargo crime, and the human factor is the most important part of the dynamic.
“You’ve got three scenarios,” he says from Regina. “You’ve got the employee, you’ve got the commodity, and you’ve got the locations – in other words, where they’re going to be stopping. It’s a four-day journey, but they’re going to be stopping here, here and here.
“So, if you have a new employee stopping in a high-risk location with target commodities, your chances of trouble are greater than if you address any one of those three points in the triad. If you assign your best, most trusted employee who’s been with you for 10 years, the dynamic changes because the commodity is going to be looked after by someone you’ve got more trust in, and location selection might be different.
“We have to look at all of those factors, but there’s no question that the human being is the key part of that triad.”
When a load is stolen, a carrier mercifully can expect the claims process to be simple: Declare what was stolen, where, when and its approximate value. Monarch’s Gerber says claims tend to be “processed very well, and sooner than later you have a cheque cut for the cargo that was stolen – if you have the right insurance company.”
McLean & Shaw’s Talbott notes that making a claim won’t necessarily affect your premiums. “It may or not,” she says. “It depends on the claim itself – the nature of the claim, the cost of the claim.”
Whether or not an insurance claim is filed, she adds, “it’s important that trucking firms report thefts to law enforcement authorities.”

INDUSTRY PARTNERS

A few years ago, CTA and partners in law enforcement and insurance commissioned a study on cargo crime. The study’s report said cargo crime can have “staggering” impacts on individual carriage companies, and it raised concerns about an increased use of violence and involvement of organized crime.
“Probably the most glaring revelation from the study was that there were actually no statistics on cargo crime and that sort of thing in Canada,” CTA’s Fox notes from Toronto. “So it became obvious that what we need to do is advocate for law enforcement to record in a uniform and consistent manner what is happening out there with respect to commercial cargo-related crimes.”
But before the CTA and its partners could advocate for those types of changes, they needed empirical evidence to demonstrate necessity. It was, as Fox says, “a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation”: Hard data was needed to argue the case that hard data should be collected.
“That is what led to CTA and IBC agreeing to partner together and develop a mechanism where cargo crime can be reported to CTA and IBC – which positions us to collect some data that can be uniform and consistent,” she explains.
“Also, it provides us a way to push that information that we capture out to law enforcement in the hopes that we can aid in the recovery of stolen freight and the like. And it also provides a mechanism for carriers to report incidences of cargo theft without having to go through their insurer, because one thing that came out of the report is that sometimes there is a reluctance in the trucking industry to report cargo crime to insurers for fear of rising premiums.”
The reporting form can be accessed online at www.ibc.ca. Fox sees the data collection and building relationships with police across Canada as wins for CTA and IBC.
“The fact that law enforcement is engaged and interested and active in this project nationwide is the first indication that it’s been a success throughout Ontario and Quebec,” she states. “Obviously if it wasn’t successful in those two provinces, there wouldn’t be interest in getting onboard in the rest of Canada.”
She says seeing more stolen cargo recovered will be the “most obvious” metric of success. “If we’re able to recover stolen freight, if we’re able to apprehend criminals and get increased charges laid, and we can somehow link those to the data that’s been collected, then I think that those would be the measurable statistics.
“I wouldn’t want to put too much weight on the numbers at this point in time, because we’re just not there yet. But there have been recoveries as a result of this program, and that’s why we want to go forward with it and continue to pursue it.”

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Sons of Wichita

Published 12 July 2014 in the Winnipeg Free Press:

Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty
By Daniel Schulman
Grand Central, 424 pages, $33

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

Charles and David Koch are famous for two things: enormous wealth derived from Koch Industries, and support for right-wing causes. Sons of Wichita covers both those themes, as well as the duo's decades-long conflict with their brothers.
Daniel Schulman, Washington senior editor for Mother Jones magazine, clearly did a thorough job researching along all three themes. And he seems to have taken pains to treat the controversial billionaires fairly -- perhaps a bit too fairly (but more on that later).
Koch Industries has its roots in oil refining, specifically a refining process Fred Koch and partners developed in the late 1920s. Since Fred's death in 1967, two of his four sons -- he had no daughters -- have expanded the company through acquisitions that include the makers of, among other things, Brawny paper towels and Lycra fabric.
Their empire also includes a notable Manitoba component: the Koch Fertilizer plant in Brandon.
For decades, Charles and David emphasized the "private" in the privately held company they control.
Sure, Charles used his wealth to fund the libertarian Cato Institute think-tank, and David was on the Libertarian presidential ticket in 1980. Otherwise, however, they kept a low profile and avoided the spotlight.
That changed after Barack Obama's election to the White House in 2008.
"Charles considered him a 'dedicated egalitarian' who had 'internalized some Marxist models,'" Schulman writes. "David... declared him 'the most radical president we've ever had as a nation,' a leader steeped in the 'hard core economic socialist' politics of his Kenyan father."
The billionaires decided they had to act quickly in response to the Obama threat. They did so by seeing that Americans for Prosperity, an organization that gets much of its funding from the Kochs, supported the "tea party" rallies that sprang up across the U.S. in 2009.
Their role in anti-Obama activities became well-known and the brothers became, in Schulman's words, "the Punch to Obama's Judy in the partisan puppet show."
The business and political aspects of the Koch story are interesting, but Sons of Wichita actually begins with a vivid scene from the 1950s on the theme of sibling rivalry: teenage David and twin brother Bill, both wearing boxing gloves, angrily throwing punches at each other near the family estate in Kansas.
That scene foreshadowed a 20-year conflict Bill was to have with David and Charles through the 1980s and '90s. With oldest brother Frederick on Bill's side but minimally involved, the war was waged in the boardroom, until Bill was kicked out of Koch Industries, and then continued through a series of lawsuits Bill filed against David and Charles.
They reached a settlement in 2001, and haven't publicly sniped at each other since.
Bill has an energy company of his own, Oxbow Corp., and spent many millions of dollars to win the America's Cup yachting trophy in 1992.
Frederick, who will turn 81 in August, has since the 1960s led a guardedly private life, with no involvement in Koch Industries. He's known in New York and Europe as a generous patron of the arts.
Schulman and his aides have clearly done their research, as evidenced by 30 pages of endnotes, and Sons is very well-written.
But it's a tad disappointing that someone from a liberal-left "hell-raiser" magazine such as Mother Jones would pull his punches so much on the right-wing "Kochtopus."
Schulman goes out of his way to be fair to these fomenters of anti-Obama rage, whether they deserve it or not. A little invective would have been appreciated.
Charles and David might disagree with that, but surely as libertarians they would defend a reviewer's right to say it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Home Away From Home

Published in Mid-Canada Forestry & Mining, Summer 2014:
The years and decades ahead look to be challenging times for HR staff at Canadian mining companies. Already, they’re finding it difficult to recruit the skilled tradespeople and professionals their employers need at remote mines.
A 2013 report published by the Mining Industry Human Resources Council projects the industry will need to hire 145,000 people in the next 10 years; more than half of its current workforce will have to be replaced. And the report notes that, if the industry expands more than expected, the actual number of new hires could be nearly 200,000 in an era when Canada’s population is aging and many Canadians are retiring.
Bright minds in HR have, of course, developed strategies and tactics in response to the situation. They’re trying to keep retirement-age workers. They’re recommending the placement of foreign workers. They’re recruiting from under-tapped sections of Canadian society – for example, First Nations.
Another part of the solution is to make mine camps more attractive by installing more of the urban comforts to which many of us have grown accustomed: truly good food, private bathrooms, big-screen televisions, cable/satellite TV channels, sophisticated fitness centres, high-speed Internet, etc.
Such “extras” aren’t really extras at all to the typical Canadian worker. They have, in fact, become an expected part of living in our affluent country. And when you’re away from loved ones and the neighbourhood Tim Hortons for weeks and months at a time, a few urban comforts can make the experience much more bearable. Having those comforts at the mine camp could be the difference between “Yes” and “No way!” when a job is offered.

'Hotelier Mindset’

PTI Group, a subsidiary of Texas-based Oil States International, has become a leader in creating comfortable workforce accommodations. Out of facilities in Edmonton, PTI designed and manufactured 120,000 square feet of living space for 400 workers at De Beers Canada’s Snap Lake diamond mine in the Northwest Territories, and then installed it on-site.
Designed with (according to PTI’s website) “a hotelier mindset,” the Snap Lake project included 400 private bedrooms in three-storey dormitories, as well as a two-storey structure containing recreation facilities, dining space, a training centre, a TV area and more.
“High-end” comforts are at the core of the accommodations that ATCO Structures & Logistics (ATCO S&L) has contracted to install at BHP Billiton’s Jansen potash project near Lanigan, Saskatchewan. It includes a 20,000-sq.-ft. sports complex with a gymnasium, weight room, raised running track, golf simulator and squash courts. There’s also a separate pre-engineered building to house a movie theatre.
The core building has a 1,200-person dining room and a separate private dining area, as well as a lounge, library, convenience store, medical centre and full laundry service. Living quarters feature bedrooms with private washrooms. Each room includes TV, phone and wireless Internet capabilities.
“A contract to build a mining accommodation of this scope and scale reinforces our long-standing reputation for having the capacity to deliver a large and comfortable workforce housing lodge,” ATCO S&L Chief Operating Officer Harry Wilmot said when the contract, which includes operating the facilities, was announced in 2012.
“Generally, the industry has asked for more of the creature comforts of home or what would be found at any hotel in an urban centre inside their accommodations,” Craig Alloway, ATCO S&L’s Vice President of Sales – North America, remarks from Calgary. “Generally the industry is moving toward what you refer to as posh accommodations. Typically a scenario where everyone gets his own washroom is probably the biggest differentiator from things that happened even as little as five years ago.”

With Satellite TV

“It’s not like the Hilton, but it’s closer than you’d expect” is how Haveman Brothers’ website describes the experience of staying at one of the Ontario company’s remote exploration camps. Features at a Haveman Brothers “turnkey remote camp solution” include indoor plumbing, phone and Internet access with WiFi, satellite TV, full bedrooms and dining areas. The firm pledges “four-season, super-insulated structures” that handle cold winters better than “your typical prospector tent.”
Haveman Brothers’ Muketei camp, about five kilometres from Noront Resources’ Eagle’s Nest project in the Ring of Fire region, responds to the mining sector’s need to appeal to potential recruits with living comforts. “They do ask for the flush toilets and Internet and all that, because they want their people to be more comfortable so they can attract better employees,” President Dave Haveman says from his office near Thunder Bay.
Winnipeg-based Expeditorsplus Incorporated has facilitated a “home away from home” feel for a Hudbay Minerals camp in northern Manitoba, says Expeditorsplus Vice President Jason White.
Originally a firm servicing fly-in fishing and hunting lodges, Expeditorsplus branched out into logistics for mining and mineral exploration camps “seven or eight years ago,” White says. “It’s an interesting industry to be in. It’s such a unique kind of niche industry.”
For the minerals sector they provide staffing, supplies, catering, housekeeping and other ingredients for operating a remote camp. The Hudbay camp includes TV, Internet and phone service, and every room has a TV with DVD player, White says.
First Nation-owned Athabasca Catering provides housekeeping and janitorial services, camp supply and management and (of course) catering to uranium mining giant Cameco and others in northern Saskatchewan. Its Manager of Business Development and Marketing, Kevin Danchuk, says seeing that employers are comfortable has become “pretty critical” to mining and exploration companies.
“They know that when you’re working in isolated areas with long hours, the food and services are very important,” he remarks from Saskatoon. “We’ve been servicing Cameco for 20 years already. The parameters of the contract have changed over the years. There’s more emphasis on the quality of food and healthy options. Certainly expanding the options is important.”
Danchuk also observes that recreational offerings have changed over the years. There are more exercise rooms with wider assortments of equipment. There are golf simulators, weight rooms and aerobics spaces where once the rec options tended to the more sedentary or prosaic.
Danchuk opines that a good gym isn’t easily accommodated by your typical modular structure, but ATCO’s Alloway points out that the Calgary-headquartered company has made vibrant exercise spaces for its clients. “We provide numerous facilities using modular box construction for fitness areas. Typically if they want a gymnasium or a court-style fitness area, those facilities require a different building technology other than wood-framed modular construction,” he says, adding ATCO provides all those building solutions.
Alloway says ATCO has been “an innovator in terms of using multiple construction strategies. … We’ll assemble multiple boxes together to create a building. We’ll also use pre-engineered building technologies to build a gymnasium or movie theatre or assembly space. We’ll also use soft-wall structures – with high-tension fabrics – to use as a facility inside a camp as well.
“We’ll match whatever our customer’s requirements are,” he states. “We can accommodate the poshest of living circumstances, or we can manage around a budget if that’s their driver.”
A nice place to hang one’s hat, a chance to surf the web and check for email, a place to practice the ol’ golf swing … add a Tims double-double and doughnut, and it sounds like home.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Managing Risk While Digging for Minerals

Published in Mid-Canada Forestry & Mining, Spring 2014:

Opportunities abound for Canadian mining companies, but so do big risks. A sudden shift in the political landscape or public policy can drastically affect a mine's profitability. One accident or natural calamity could imperil an operation's future. The road to riches in mineral extraction is littered with hazards.

Smart businesses are ahead of the curve when it comes to risk management. They take on risks with full knowledge and strategies. They have backup plans. And they have super-knowledgeable partners to help them navigate the risky terrain: insurance brokers and carriers who know all the ins and outs of risk management in their sector.

"Oh, it's definitely a partnership," Bernie Robertson agrees from his office at Knox Insurance Brokers Ltd. (KIBL) in North Bay. He says brokers offer the expertise in risk management that miners usually don't have, and they supply that expertise at a small fraction of what it would cost to have a full-time risk management expert working in-house at the mining firm.

Robertson, who lends his insurance experience and know-how to the Canadian Diamond Drilling Association as a board member, says good risk management is critical to mining and exploration businesses.

It's a three-way partnership among miners, insurance carriers and insurance brokers, says Cosmo Racano, Managing Director at Marsh Canada Limited in Winnipeg.

From his office in Toronto, RSA Insurance Assistant Vice-President (Energy) Michael Marino says pretty much the same thing. "We work as partners – insurance carriers, the brokers and clients," he declares. "We all work together to see what the best solution is for the client." RSA sells insurance through hundreds of brokers across Canada.

Marino says comprehensive risk management can be difficult to sell to some of the mineral sector's more daring operators.

"The junior mining companies, they're huge risk takers," he observes. "You've got to give them credit for, with the economy the way it's been in recent years, taking the risk and forging ahead.

"It can be hard to get them involved in risk management at that level because they're such risk takers, but it's essential these days that they have a focus on risk management. There are so many ways that you could be affected, especially on the D&O side (directors and officers), where you have a lot of obligations to shareholders and the liabilities can be huge.

He recommends coverage in 'professional liability' (claims of negligence or misrepresentation) and 'errors and omissions' (mistakes and oversights by professionals working for a company). Without insurance, problems in these areas could hurt shareholders and board members, or shut down a mine.

"You really have to be on the ball with all the changes taking place," he continues. "Risk management really does take time, but in the long run it really separates the winners from the losers."

The up-front investment is worth it, he says, because "it will help you sustain your business over the years."

Marino says much of risk management comes down to supply chain management. "The world's becoming smaller, there's specialization, who's supplying your power – you know, all these things come into play, and any one of them can take you out of business or set you down for quite a while. It may have nothing to do with your operation on its own.

"You basically have to look at a business continuity plan where you start right from the nuts and bolts at the beginning and take it all the way through from the supplier side right to where you supply to your customers. A customer going out of business or not being able to receive your product can be just as harmful to your business as losing a critical supplier."

Drawing up a business continuity plan involves determining and evaluating your critical suppliers, and where the biggest impacts would be in the event of an interruption in supply. Marino says a good business continuity plan "really captures all the risks when you work it through. You have the operational risks that you have to look at. There's reputational risk. There's environmental risk. You capture a lot of that when you go through the business continuity plan."

A good, experienced broker is invaluable in this process, Marino remarks. "Brokers are very familiar with dealing with this whole process. They help you evaluate your business, where you're vulnerable."

A broker can help you plan for possible supply-chain problems that aren't in the insurance policy, he adds. "There are insurance products out there that help you compensate for some of those supply-chain issues, but some of it currently is non-insurable – I mean, because they're risks that insurance companies don't supply coverage for."

Among the generally non-insurable risks is interruption in power supply. "Unless you have contingent business interruption insurance, and you cover the specific risk that applied to the power, you would be without coverage," says Marino. "So, as long as the power's down, you can't operate. That means you would be losing revenue."

In the expert opinion of KIBL's Robertson, the most important categories of risk management for Canadian mining are environmental, employment practices and tax liability. "I can help you with two out of three," he adds with a chuckle, "but my advice on taxes is to find a good accountant."

For Canadian companies' overseas operations, the most important category of risk is political.

"Resource nationalism is the foremost issue," says RSA's Marino, pointing to recent troubles for Toronto-headquartered Centerra Gold to illustrate. Centerra's Kumtor mine in Kyrgyzstan was the scene of large protests in May and June. Some protesters were calling for outright nationalization of the mine. A state commission has said Centerra is paying the government too little and causing great environmental harm.

"As governments are stretched for more revenue, they're going to look at different avenues." Marino says. "As well, the people, once they get more involved in those areas, their incomes are going up and they become more knowledgeable. … and risks multiply."

Foreign operations also risk getting tangled in local fraud and corruption, he adds. "When you're using third-party consultants in other countries, your D&O can be exposed to that. You don't always know what kind of negotiations take place between consultants and the various governments and other officials. So there's significant exposure out there in regard to anti-corruption law."

A good broker can be of invaluable assistance to a miner sorting out options in risk management and insurance.

Marsh's Racano points out that large insurance brokers such as Marsh have in-house engineers, environmental specialists and other experts who help find risk-management solutions for clients, he adds. A client might have a key piece of equipment that is crucial to operations; Marsh staff would see that and advise on a backup plan that can be effected in the event of a breakdown to ensure that operations resume as quickly as possible.

Equipment breakdown insurance is strongly recommended.

Seeing all the risk-management pieces come together through the carrier-broker-client partnership brings a feeling of satisfaction to RSA's Marino.

"We have a great partners that we work with," he says "That really helps. I like to see companies succeed – when they go all the way from the junior phase to operational. The group that we have here, we have longevity with our clients. We're in the business of staying around for a long time, through thick and thin."