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Mining companies and the taxpayer facing steep mine reclamation costs.

Throughout Northern Ontario one can find the distinctive legacy of the mining industry.

It is not the massive employment that was once generated by the industry, nor is it the creation and development of communities, or the revenue extracted from the area. Rather, it is the industry's toxic waste sites - mine tailings.

With tighter restrictions on waste management called for by government, the environmental cleanup bill for this industry is staggering. It is estimated that the Canadian mining industry is facing expenditures of $3 billion or more for mine reclamation over the next 20 years.

In 1989/90 the provincial Ministry of Northern Development and Mines revised the provincial Mining Act to ensure that mining companies would be responsible for rehabilitating their mine tailings. The creation and abandonment of mines without ensuring environmentally sound and financially viable reclamation activities has been outlawed.

Comprehensive decommissioning and closure plans addressing physical, public safety and environmental issues such as waste management are the key elements of the province's new regulations, as are the financial assurances that these are viable plans.

Of the numerous active and inactive mine tailings that exist in this part of the province, some have been completely deserted, that is, companies have failed to lay claim to the properties. The environmental cleanup of these sites has fallen and will fall on the government, and will ultimately be paid by the taxpayer.

Keith Winterhalder, an associate professor of biology at Laurentian University, says mine tailings are a very serious problem in Northern Ontario as abandoned mine sites are still being discovered. He adds, however, that mining companies are making a serious effort to deal with waste management.

A great many mine tailing sites have been cleaned up or are in the process of being rehabilitated by their owners. Industry leaders like Inco, Falconbridge and Rio Algom are taking great efforts to detoxify and reclaim their environmental waste sites.

According to Marty Puro, Inco's superintendent of decommissioning and reclamation, the company has been involved in the reclaiming of tailings since the early 1950s. At that time the company undertook some early experiments examining how mine tailings could be rehabilitated.

"We've done more reclamation of mine tailings than anyone in Canada," says Puro.

Mine tailings are essentially the leftover effluents and particulate mineral deposits of mineral processing. Most Canadian mine tailings contain sulphide minerals such as pyrite which, when exposed to both oxygen and water, become highly acidic. This acidity is hazardous to groundwater sources, wildlife, fish and the physical environment. In areas like uranium-rich Elliot Lake, the tailings are also radioactive.

While the industry has been examining and continues to examine a "walk-away" method for waste management, whereby ongoing maintenance would be eliminated, Winterhalder points out that many industry participants are slowly coming to the conclusion that tailings rehabilitation is an "in-perpetuity" proposition.

A primary reason is that companies must begin their management of acid-generating tailings from the start, but a sound-proof method for controlling acidic seepage, following the reclamation of tailings, has yet to be developed.

Rio Algom, for example, is examining the best means of safely disposing of 65 million tons of radioactive waste produced by two of its mines prior to the 1990 shutdown. The company favors a plan to bury the tailings under water by flooding them. Research has demonstrated that the tailings will not generate acid under water as they will not be exposed to oxygen.

According to Roger Payne, Rio Algom's superintendent of decommissioning, "there would have to be perpetual monitoring and maintenance, perhaps twice a year."

Payne says this follow-up will likely be undertaken by government, as the company is not likely to be in existence 10,000 years from now.

Winterhalder notes that flooding is becoming a popular method of dealing with tailings. However, liming remains the most common means of rehabilitating these waste sites.

Creating wetlands or revegetating tailings are other popular methods of reclaiming tailings.

According to Puro, Inco was instrumental in establishing the initial programs using the revegetation method. Inco is currently involved in reclaiming a significant portion, approximately half, of its 5,000-acre Copper Cliff tailings. The company has used a water-management system for part of the reclaimed tailings, and a revegetation system, liming and wetlands for the remainder.

Falconbridge is also using a liming and biological method of reclaiming its tailings. It is investigating the use of cattails in the flooding method, whereby a cattail stand would be encouraged to grow in the flooded site. The cattails would shield the tailings from wind and wave activities and would also act as an absorbent of metal particulates.

The company is also looking at covering tailings with materials such as waste wood chips, sawdust and domestic garbage that absorb or block oxygen from reaching the tailings.

Winterhalder is currently involved in experimenting with the impact of placing a peat bog on top of the Kam-Kotia tailings near Timmins.

In addition to establishing vegetation on the tailings, peat acts as an oxygen barrier preventing acidic conversion. The disadvantage of this method is that a natural bog would have to be destroyed.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Laurentian Business Publishing, Inc.
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Title Annotation:Resources Reports
Author:Campbell, Joan
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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