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Limnological Processes in the Development of Acid Pit Lakes

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  • Limnological processes are often overlooked when trying to assess the long-term water quality of pit lakes. It is essential to deal with these aspects, since they determine the geochemical and redox conditions around the submerged reactive rocks. Underground mining at East Sullivan (northwestern Quebec, Canada) stopped in 1966. Two adjacent stopes, 91 and 106 m deep, were left open to the surface, with roughly circular apertures of about 7700 and 18 000 m2 . Water filling of the two glory holes went on over three decades and overflow began in 1999. Surface water pHs values were near neutrality as late as 1994 (6.3 - 7.0) but had become acidic by 1999 (2.6 - 3.5). Limnological processes were investigated in late-1999 and early-2000, with temperature measurements at 1 m intervals and sampling of the water columns before and after the late fall density inversions. A strong chemocline-thermocline was observed at 15 m. Above the chemocline, the water had low pH (3.2), no alkalinity, and low Na, Ca and sulfate. Below the chemocline, the concentrations of these parameters and the pH increased, with pH at 5.5 - 6. Consistent with the low pH values present in the upper 15 m, the concentrations of Al, Cd, Cu, and Zn were high near surface, and decreased below the chemocline. Dissolved oxygen concentrations as well as Eh decreased with increasing depth. Alkalinity integrated over the entire water column below the chemocline was at least six times larger than the acidity inferred from Fe2+ and Fe3+ concentrations. The temperature survey showed that seasonal density inversions do occur in the water column. The inversions do not involve the entire water body, since the surface to depth ratio is too small for a complete overturn. Oxygen from surface waters is carried to the bottom where it oxidises sulfides, until its depletion. Residual Fe2+, stable under anoxic conditions, is displaced upward by the next dense water incursion. It eventually reaches the thermocline, but only after many successive incursions. There, its oxidation to Fe3+ allows hydrolysis, which consumes dissolved and wall-rock alkalinity. It is only in 1999 that alkalinity was finally exhausted and that the pH shifts to acid values. The low pHs in the surface waters allow a build up of Fe3+ and Al3+, and desorption of metals from colloids. Buffering is assumed to be controlled by wall-rock oxyhydroxides in surface waters, and by carbonate minerals in the bottom waters. Because the seasonal overturns are far from being complete, the large amounts of alkalinity acquired from the wall-rock in the bottom waters cannot balance the acidity of near surface waters. Hence the surface water is acidic.

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