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The fate of cyanide in leach wastes at gold mines: an environmental perspective

May 13, 2015

This paper reviews the basic chemistry of cyanide, methods by which cyanide can be analyzed, and aspects of cyanide behavior that are most relevant to environmental considerations at mineral processing operations associated with gold mines. The emphasis is on research results reported since 1999 and on data gathered for a series of U.S. Geological Survey studies that began in the late 1990s. Cyanide is added to process solutions as the CN anion, but ore leaching produces numerous other cyanide-containing and cyanide-related species in addition to the desired cyanocomplex of gold. These can include hydrogen cyanide (HCN); cyanometallic complexes of iron, copper, zinc, nickel, and many other metals; cyanate (CNO); and thiocyanate (SCN). The fate of these species in solid wastes and residual process solutions that remain once gold recovery activities are terminated and in any water that moves beyond the ore processing facility dictates the degree to which cyanide poses a risk to aquatic organisms and aquatic-dependent organisms in the local environment.

Cyanide-containing and cyanide-related species are subject to attenuation mechanisms that lead to dispersal to the atmosphere, chemical transformation to other carbon and nitrogen species, or sequestration as cyanometallic precipitates or adsorbed species on mineral surfaces. Dispersal to the atmosphere and chemical transformation amount to permanent elimination of cyanide, whereas sequestration amounts to storage of cyanide in locations from which it can potentially be remobilized by infiltrating waters if conditions change. From an environmental perspective, the most significant cyanide releases from gold leach operations involve catastrophic spills of process solutions or leakage of effluent to the unsaturated or saturated zones. These release pathways are unfavorable for two important cyanide attenuation mechanisms that tend to occur naturally: dispersal of free cyanide to the atmosphere and sunlight-catalyzed dissociation of strong cyanometallic complexes, which produces free cyanide that can then disperse to the atmosphere. The widest margins of environmental safety will be achieved where mineral processing operations are designed so that time for offgassing, aeration, and sunlight exposure are maximized in the event that cyanide-bearing solutions are released inadvertently.