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Field Studies of Semi-Passive Biogeochemical Treatment of Acid Rock Drainage at the Island Copper Mine Pit Lake

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  • On-land waste rock dumps at BHP Billiton Base Metals’ Island Copper Mine (ICM) near the northern end of Vancouver Island, B.C. continue to discharge ARD. These waters, which amount to approximately five million cubic metres each year, are injected into a three-layer, meromictic pit lake for treatment. The top layer is brackish water, replenished by each year’s rainfall (amounting to nearly 2 m/year). This top layer of water must meet effluent permit limits for heavy metals. This water eventually exfiltrates through a ‘beach’ waste rock dump, which is 93 per cent submerged along the north shore of Rupert Inlet. The middle and bottom layers of the Pit Lake are saline and currently oxic (2 mg/L dissolved oxygen) and anoxic (0.03 mg/L dissolved oxygen), respectively. Spreading of a liquid fertilizer every ten days throughout the top layer results in plankton and bacterial blooms that scavenge zinc, copper and cadmium out of this layer eventually to become mineral sediment in the bottom of the pit lake. Adsorption on planktonic skeletons and mineral precipitates also scavenges these dissolved metals from the middle and bottom layers to form bottom sediment. Sulfate reduction has recently begun in the bottom sediments. Diagenetic processes in the bottom sediments will eventually transform most of the dissolved heavy metals into insoluble sulfides. Cycling of ferric iron between the sediment and the water column and back seems to contribute dramatically to the biogeochemical metal removal processes. This biogeochemical system serves to maintain the top-layer water well within permit limits for discharge to the environment.

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