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The Medium-Term Performance of Waste Rock Covers — Rum Jungle as a Case Study

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  • Earthen covers are now widely used in the mining industry to control the generation rate and/or release rate of low quality drainage from piles of sulfidic minewastes. Covers are usually designed to reduce the water infiltration rate and in some cases may also reduce the oxygen flux to the underlying sulfides. Engineered covers have only been used since the 1980s, however, and there is very little field data on their performance in the longer term. This lack of information has implications for the degree of confidence that can be placed on the predictions of the environmental impacts of sulfidic minewastes, for the acceptance of close-out criteria by regulatory authorities and for the financial liability of the mining industry. Covers were placed on sulfidic waste rock dumps at the abandoned Rum Jungle uranium mine during 1984 - 1985. These covers were designed to reduce the water infiltration to less than five per cent of incident rainfall by both water shedding and storage-release mechanisms. Regular monitoring by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) demonstrated that the covers performed better than the design criterion for around ten years, but infiltration rates have subsequently increased. There is a 66 per cent probability that the infiltration rate now exceeds five per cent of incident rainfall. The cover on the largest pile, White’s heap, was sampled in pits dug at eight locations. Sampling was carried out at the end of the monsoonal wet season and again at the end of the ‘dry’ season. This, together with laboratory testing, enabled cover performance to be assessed against five criteria: design, construction, cover material characteristics, physico-chemical characteristics and biological characteristics. We are of the opinion that the design of the cover was suitable to achieve the objectives of stability, water shedding, storage-release, and provision of a substrate for vegetation growth. Over most of the surface of the heap, the construction of the covers, drains and erosion prevention structures was in accordance with design specifications. However, several small and localised bare patches on the upper surface of White’s heap coincide with a reduced cover thickness, which is likely to have been due to poor construction in those patches. The construction of covers on minewastes is dependent on an adequate source of material meeting design specifications. From our limited examination, it appears that there was shortage of material for each of the three zones – a lower impervious clay layer, the moisture storage-release layer and the upper erosion-resistant layer for vegetative growth. An indication of this was that the upper layers in some areas were observed to be thinner than specified. We are of the opinion that this shortage of suitable material has been responsible for some of the changes observed ten years after emplacement. Physical and geotechnical testing indicated that the cover materials no longer meet the original specifications. In particular, the permeability at the 8 locations was found to be greater than specified, by up to several orders of magnitude. The higher permeability may explain the higher observed rainfall infiltration and moisture content of the waste rock. This increased permeability appears to be due to a combination of biological and physical processes – galleries formed by termites and ants and an extensive system of shrinkage/desiccation cracks formed by the development of a polygonal blocky structure involving the entire lower clay layer. The desiccation cracks may fill with coarser illuviated materials and form a conduit through which roots access the underlying waste rock. Measurements were made of oxygen flux into the heap as cover layers were excavated in the pits. They indicated that the full cover currently reduces the oxygen flux to 20 - 23 per cent of that into bare waste and that this reduction seems to be proportional to the cover thickness. It was also found that the oxygen flux into the cover is about four times higher at the end of the dry season than at the end of the wet season and that the difference is due primarily to the difference in moisture content of the cover. Recommendations are made for the design and construction of covers.

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