Environmental Considerations - Mine Water

Gipe, Donald C. ; Renfroe, William T. Jr.
Organization: Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration
Pages: 10
Publication Date: Jan 1, 1982
INTRODUCTION Historically, pollution control in the metal-ore mining industry has been very limited. Unless mine water contained large quantities of solids, it was generally discharged without any treatment. If treatment was used to control solids, it was principally the provision of a settling basin in the form of a tailings impoundment used in conjunction with an associated metal ore dressing facility. Recently, however, a growing awareness of the adverse environmental impacts of mine drainage, coupled with strict environmental laws, has prompted the mining industry to look at new technologies and to refine the existing methods to further treat the wastes generated. This industry is unique in that waste loadings are extremely variable, and a "typical facility with typical waste loads" does not exist. Consequently, one waste- water treatment system cannot be utilized on an industry wide basis; rather, each treatment system must be designed specifically for the pollutants in each individual discharge. Public Law 92-500, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) Amendments of 1972, became effective on Oct. 18, 1972. This law completely restructured Federal laws and philosophies underlying the Federal approach to water pollution control. Prior to the 1972 amendments, the principal Federal regulatory tool had been water-quality standards based on a designated use for a particular body of water. The concept was that waste disposal into water bodies is a desirable and acceptable use of the water body if it does not interfere with other beneficial uses. This had the effect of requiring various degrees of treatment and, consequently, various economic hardships on industries de- pendent upon their location. In many waterways. it is very difficult to quantitatively relate discharges to water quality. The 1972 amendments changed the basic philosophy, as stated in the Senate Committee report on the bill, to ". . . no one has the right to pollute . . . that pollution continues because of technological limits, not because of any inherent right to use the nation's waterways for the purpose of disposing of wastes." Pursuant to Sections 301, 304(b), and 306 of the FWPCA Amendments of 1972, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was required to establish effluent standards applicable to all industrial discharges. These standards must be based upon the application of the "best practicable control technology currently avail- able" (BPT) and the application of the "best available technology economically achievable" (BAT). The BPT and BAT levels must be achieved industry-wide by July 1, 1977, and July 1, 1983, respectively. WASTE SOURCES The waste-water situation in the mining segment of the ore mining and dressing industry is unlike that encountered in most other industries. Most industries (e.g., the milling segment of this industry) utilize water in the specific processes they employ. This water frequently becomes contaminated during the process and must be treated prior to discharge. However, in the mining segment, process water normally is not utilized in the actual mining of ores (exceptions are hydraulic mining operations and dust control), but it is a natural occurrence that interferes with mining activities and must be removed before mining can commence. Water enters mines by ground-water infiltration and surface runoff, and it comes into contact with materials in the host rock, ore, and overburden. The underground mine must pump large quantities of ground water to prevent flooding of the mine. Water from surface mining operations generally occurs as a result of surface runoff of rainwater. Generally, mining operations control surface runoff through the use of diversion ditching and grading to prevent, as much as possible, excess water from entering the working area. Nevertheless, some surface runoff does come into contact with the working area and may become contaminated. The quantity of water from an .ore mine is unrelated, or only indirectly related, to production quantities. De- pending upon its quality, the mine water may require treatment before it can be discharged into the surface drainage network. The variability of water quality from mines can best be demonstrated by looking at Table 1. This table shows the range of pollutant concentrations in untreated discharges from three different categories of mines (as categorized by EPA in the development of BPT and BAT effluent standards for the metal-mining industry). Data for this table were obtained during EPA's preparation of effluent standards for this industry. The parameters shown on the table are the pollutant parameters of primary interest in this industry; blanks in the table indicate that data were not available, and the parameter is not expected to be present in significant quantities. Other pollutant parameters are present in mining waste water, but they are either incidentally removed in the treatment process or are found only in trace amounts. The three categories comprise more than 90% of the metal production value in the United States and approximately 95% of the total mine discharges. It is important to note that not all parameters are found in significant concentrations at all locations. IMPACT ON WATER QUALITY One of the most troublesome mine-drainage problems is acidity. Although generally associated with coal mining, acid mine drainage frequently occurs from other types of mines. Although the exact mechanism of acid mine drainage is not fully understood, it generally is believed that pyrite (iron sulfide, FeS,) is oxidized by oxygen (Eq. 1) or ferric iron (Eq. 2) to produce ferrous sulfate (FeSO4) and sulfuric acid (H2SO4) . The mining of ores associated with pyritic material exposes the pyrites to water and oxygen and grossly accelerates the natural oxidation processes, resulting in the significant production of acid mine drainage.
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