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Investigation of Weathering Properties of Tailings Sand From Boliden’s Aitik Copper Mine, Sweden — A Summary of Twelve Years of Investigations

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  • Boliden’s Aitik mine, located 100 km north of the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden, is one of Europe’s largest copper mines. This operation produces 18 Mt of ore per year and 99 per cent of this tonnage needs to be deposited as tailings. The tailings pond currently covers 1140 ha but at closure it will hold around 760 Mt of tailings and occupy an area of 1400 ha. The tailings contain less than one per cent sulfur and only 0.03 per cent copper. The carbonate content is as low as 0.25 per cent but silicates, with substantial accumulated buffering and metal adsorption capacity, are abundant. A programme of comprehensive material characterisation and investigations has been undertaken in order to design a decommissioning strategy that meets the regulatory requirements and secures long-term physical and chemical stability of the deposited tailings. The main concern has been the potential generation of acid rock drainage (ARD). Standard tests using acid base accounting (ABA) and humidity cell tests during 15 weeks were not conclusive regarding the ARD generation potential. The accuracy of the results was considered to be unsatisfactory, therefore the humidity cell tests were gradually extended in time. In total, almost four years of humidity cell tests were conducted on various sets of samples which were selected in order to cover the variation in sulfide content existing on site and in various points of the milling process. The laboratory results were subject to detailed geochemical evaluation in order to fully understand the interaction between acid-producing reactions, driven by weathering of sulfides, and acid-consuming reactions by dissolution of carbonates and alumino-silicates. The laboratory tests were followed by both pilot tests and field measurements in order to estimate the scale dependency between the laboratory and the field results. It was found that sulfide weathering rates in the field were considerably lower than those measured in the laboratory. However, it could not be verified that the tailings top layer would maintain a neutral pH in the long term even under field conditions. Thus, a reviewed tailings management plan, including de-pyritisation of the tailings during the last years of operation, is considered.

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