Development of perched water tables in leach dumps: A case history

Schlitt, W. J.
Organization: Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration
Pages: 4
Publication Date: Jan 1, 1987
Introduction Heap and dump leaching are low-cost metal production techniques that are gaining in popularity among gold and copper producers. However, the flow of solution in heaps and dumps has received little attention in the literature. This is unfortunate since solution flow is one of the few parameters subject to operator control. Thus, solution management may well influence both operating costs and plant performance. Costs aside, there are two important aspects of solution flow to be considered -the metallurgical and the hydrological. Some of the metallurgical factors have recently been discussed (Jackson and Ream, 1980; Schlitt, 1984; Schlitt and Nicolai, 1987). These cover solution application rates and methods, irrigation rates, leach-rest cycles, and nonvertical solution flow. According to Caldwell and Moss (1985), however, the hydrological aspects may be more significant than the metallurgical ones. In particular, a phreatic surface will form when excessive flow leads to an accumulation of water and the associated buildup of pore pressure within the rock pile. Such internal flooding can either originate at the foundation or at some other zone of very low permeability. The latter condition gives rise to an impounded volume of solution, i.e., a perched water table (see Whiting, 1985). Caldwell and Moss point out that a rising zone of saturation is probably the most common cause of dump failures. Of course, such failures have even occurred in heaps that were carefully prepared for leaching (Milligan and Engelhardt, 1984). Thus, flooded conditions and perched water tables represent an important safety consideration as well as having an impact on metallurgical performance. The following sections describe a case history in which a perched water table developed within a copper leach dump. The description includes background information, solution flow rates, and metallurgical data. Then this situation is compared to one involving normal drainage. Description of the leach system The leach dump in the case history is located at a shutdown open pit copper mine. It was built in two lifts, with the second added some 20 years after the first. There is little detailed information available on the initial lift. It was built with railĀ¬hauled waste and was generally less than 30 m (100 ft) high at the crest. The area available for leaching was about 120 m (400 ft) wide and more than 380 m (1250 ft) long. The dump surface was prepared for leaching by dozing ponds approximately 12 m by 12 m by 2.5 to 3.0 m deep (40 ft by 40 ft by 8 to 10 ft). The ponds were leached by flooding with barren leach solution returned from a scrap iron cementation plant. Based on mill feed at the time, the average waste grade was probably close to 0.4% Cu. The first lift leached well. It accepted high flows, which together with the waste grade, produced a rich pregnant leach solution (PLS). Old records indicate a PLS of "50 lb Cu/ 1000 gal," or about 6 g/L. As later drilling would indicate, such a high tenor led to dissolution of considerable scrap iron that was returned to the dump. The iron then hydrolyzed and settled out on the pond bottoms. In addition, the waste settled substantially so that the unleached crest was 3.0 to 4.5 m (10 to 15 ft) above the ponded area. Eventually, the leachable copper was extracted and the dump became less permeable. Thus, the PLS tenor dropped until it became uneconomical. About ten years later, mining resumed and the decision was made to add another lift to the dump. This was done without giving much thought to a subsequent leach operation. Hence a 24-m (80-ft) lift was built on top of the original dump. The surface of the latter was not prepared in any way, e.g., by leveling and/or deep ripping, prior to over-dumping. Examination of subsequent drill cuttings indicated that the new lift contained about 0.2% Cu, with chalcopyrite and chalcocite (50:50) being the predominant copper minerals. Most of the chalcocite occurred as rimming on the abundant pyrite, with the pyrite to chalcopyrite ratio estimated at 10 to 1. The use of 100- and 120-ton trucks for haulage caused some waste compaction during emplacement. In addition, the host rock itself was relatively soft, being a porphyry intrusive material that was partially altered to clay. As a result of the initial compaction and clay swelling, the rate of water percolation from the new leach ponds was slow and the ponds often contained considerable standing water. Even frequent ripping failed to provide a sustained improvement in the percolation rate. The poor surface permeability was exacerbated by hydrolysis of iron salts which settled as a layer on the pond bottoms. Partly as a result of the permeability problems, metallurgical performance was not up to expectations. These had been based on laboratory tests which showed about 20% copper solubilization in two weeks. Continued copper extraction in the tests also suggested that a substantial percentage of the copper would eventually be recovered. However, the PLS grade in the actual operation peaked briefly at about 0.48 g/L Cu (4 lb Cu/1000 gal), then declined to a range of only 0.24 to 0.36 g/L Cu (2 to 3 lb Cu/1000 gal). The poor leaching was traced to a lack of oxidation of the sulfides. There were two principal observations supporting this conclusion. First, there was no evidence of any heat being generated within the dump. As discussed elsewhere (Schlitt and Jackson, 1981; Hiskey and Schlitt, 1982), pyrite oxidation is quite exothermic and the high pyrite content of the waste should have led to an increase in the temperature of the leach solution as it percolated through the rock pile. Second, there was no sign of any natural convective air flow through the dump.
Full Article Download:
(283 kb)