Acid and metalliferous drainage (AMD) is routinely derived from waste rock, tailings, pit wall rock, underground mine voids, heap leach pads, ore stockpiles, concentrate stockpiles and even slag piles. In many jurisdictions, there is an assumption that tailings materials represent the highest AMD risk. This is likely due to their highly sulfidic and ultra-fine grained nature, and the fact that they occur in large tonnage, partially unsaturated deposits. These characteristics are not unreasonably associated with reactive and therefore highly polluting mine waste materials. Interestingly, however, the high sulfide content and highly reactive nature of tailings achieves the rapid consumption of oxygen in tailings pore spaces. This oxygen depletion can limit or halt sulfide oxidation throughout much of the tailings pile. Oxygen can only be resupplied to the tailings via atmospheric exchange at the air-tailings interface. The grain size of most tailings materials limits this resupply to a diffusion related process that only affects the uppermost 100–2000 mm. Hence sulfide oxidation in tailings can be inherently self-limiting. Unfortunately, the same cannot be concluded for waste rock materials.
Using a unique site assessment strategy that focuses on quantifying acidity fluxes from various domains at a mine site, it has become increasingly evident that sulfidic waste rock produces the majority (typically 60–80 per cent) of the soluble acid and metalliferous pollution at most active and decommissioned sulfide-bearing mine sites. Whether sulfidic waste rock is disposed in engineered above ground facilities, backfilled into pits or even underground voids, it remains the primary source of pollutants for decades to centuries.
Conventional end-dumping waste rock practices result in angle-of-repose pathways for air and water, and these internal fabrics exacerbate sulfide oxidation (ie pollution generation) and discharge from waste rock materials. The primary aim of many cover systems is to retard the access of air and water to these conduits. Recent thinking is that more emphasis needs to be directed at strategic waste rock pile construction practices, and less reliance placed on thin soil cover systems to prevent AMD.
Waste rock pile construction approaches that minimise porosity and permeability but raise the retained moisture content and enhance water residence times have the potential to lower sulfide oxidation rates and thereby improve water quality outcomes. For example, innovative base-up, layered and compacted (BULC) waste rock piles have the potential to avoid or minimise the generation of AMD, supersede the need for treatment and facilitate successful closure and relinquishment across the mining sector (Figure 1).
Taylor, J R, Pape, S M, Davis, B S and Muchan, J A, 2016. Waste rock pile construction to lower closure and relinquishment costs, in Proceedings Life-of-Mine 2016 Conference, pp 97–99 (The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy: Melbourne).