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The Hydrogeochemical Characterisation of an Unsaturated Waste Rock Pile, Key Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada

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  • Controls on environmental loading from acid rock drainage (ARD) are not well understood in waste rock material. In particular, relationships between subsurface flow and the timing, duration, and intensity of leaching of metals and acidity from waste rock dumps remain ill defined. This study investigates field-scale relationships between subsurface flow processes and geochemical processes in unsaturated waste rock. A 12-metre tall, unsaturated waste rock pile, constructed in 1994, was deconstructed and sampled at Key Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada, during the summer of 2000. A detailed sampling methodology was developed to characterise physical and chemical properties of waste rock material within the waste rock pile. Physical properties were characterised by measuring soil-water suction, volumetric water content, and grain-size distribution at 60 random locations within the pile and grain-size distribution at 20 grid locations within the pile. Attempts to develop a field-based soil water characteristic curve from physical field-data failed due to spatial variability and hysteresis of waste rock properties. As a result, grain-size distribution was used as a relative measure of subsurface flow. Paste pH, pore-water geochemistry, mineralogy, and water-soluble extraction results were used to characterise geochemical processes and sulfide oxidation at each of the 20 grid locations. Geochemical characterisation results demonstrated the preferential weathering of marcasite relative to pyrite and chalcopyrite. Dolomite was the main buffering carbonate mineral. Gyspum, jarosite and iron oxyhydroxides were the main secondary minerals. Pore-waters contained up to 800, 11.7, and 6 mMolar (78 000, 690, 1400 mg/L, respectively) of sulfate, nickel, and uranium, respectively, suggesting significant weathering has occurred. Measures of weathering indicators show no discernable correlation with grain-size distribution nor do they show any spatial relationship within the sampled grid. Reasons for this may include limited duration of waste rock exposure to weathering and development of fluid flow-paths, and limitations of characterisation methods used. Indeed, six years may not be long enough for weathering patterns to develop due to fluid flow-paths in this unsaturated waste rock pile.

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