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Micrometer-scale characterization of solid mine waste aids in closure due diligence

December 31, 2019

Precious- and base-metal mining often occurs in deposits with high acid-generating potential, resulting in mine waste that contains metals in forms of varying bioavailability, and therefore toxicity. The solids that host these metals are often noncrystalline, nanometer to micrometer in size, or undetectable by readily available analytical techniques (e.g., X-ray diffraction). This analytical shortcoming can pose a challenge when attempting to characterize sources and natural attenuation of metals at a given site, which is a best practice to satisfy closure due diligence. Numerous case studies have shown that efforts to characterize mine waste at multiple scales, particularly the micrometer scale, often lead to a better understanding of metal distribution and potential contamination risks.

This paper presents a case study that compares the use of both traditional and non-traditional techniques to identify and quantify metal hosts in sediments downstream of the abandoned mine waste piles at the Ely Copper Mine Superfund site in Vermont (USA). The contaminant present in the highest concentration in the sediments is copper, yet not all copper-bearing solids were detected with bulk X-ray diffraction (XRD). At the micrometer scale, a combination of synchrotron-based X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) and an automated mineralogy (AM) system were used to identify the most abundant copper-bearing solids. Bulk XAS and AM also provided semi-quantitative abundances of these solids in the sediment.

At the Ely Copper Mine, copper in stream sediments was found to be predominantly hosted in sulphide minerals downstream of a major mine waste pile, whereas upstream copper was predominantly hosted in secondary iron and manganese (oxyhydr)oxides. These copper-bearing hosts were consistent with the expected bioavailability of copper in the sediments based on laboratory toxicity tests with aquatic organisms. When the bulk of copper was present in sulphides, aquatic organisms experienced greater survival than when copper was mostly associated with secondary iron and manganese (oxyhydr)oxides. The information gained from probing the sediments at multiple scales can now be used to prioritize containment and remediation strategies.

While synchrotron-based analytical techniques have proven to be invaluable in many studies of mine waste, access to these techniques is limited. In contrast, access to a scanning electron microscope that can perform AM is becoming more common, primarily for the application in mining design and mineral processing operations. More recently, the successful use of AM to characterize mine waste suggests that this technique can be equally as valuable for mine closure plans. The resolution of information obtained may go beyond what is required from a regulatory perspective, but given that the results have the potential to be more conclusive than many traditional techniques, this level of characterization may save time and money in the long run.

Publication Year 2020
Title Micrometer-scale characterization of solid mine waste aids in closure due diligence
Authors Bryn E. Kimball, Heather E. Jamieson, Robert R. Seal, Agatha Dobosz, Nadine M. Piatak
Publication Type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype Conference Paper
Index ID 70216799
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Eastern Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center