Mine Tailings & Healthy Water
Dec 21, 2020
How would you describe a healthy person? Would it be sufficient to say that a healthy person is someone who isn’t sick?
No. A healthy person is someone vibrant and alive. There is a robustness and vitality about them. It’s not just that they are “not sick.” Their health allows them to thrive in the world and face negative environmental pressures with ease. Healthy water can be defined in much the same way.
Typically water is defined as needing treatment when it contains constituents at levels that make it toxic. The water is essentially labelled “sick.” Conventional wisdom suggests that we if we lower the problematic components below a certain mandated threshold, the problem will be solved.
That’s very much like after a cancerous tumor has been removed saying a patient is healthy, even if they are overweight and get no exercise. We recognize the foolishness in that thinking in people but fail to understand that water is more than just H2O.
The Mining Perspective
Managing tailings is a vital part of a mining operation. Tailings ponds perform essential environmental functions such as controlling acid rock drainage and preventing excessive minerals from entering the greater ecosystem.
The challenge comes when the tailings facilities reach capacity, particularly in areas subject to high rainfall levels. The water levels need to be reduced; therefore, the question is thrown to the regulators about the approved discharge criteria.
The Regulators Perspective
Environmental regulations are essential to maintaining a healthy ecosystem. The challenge, however, is how can the complexities of the release of wastewater into the natural world be codified into simple, concrete rules that industry can abide by.
Regulators have generally adopted the “not sick” method of establishing discharge criteria; therefore, regulations are based on the safe drinking water standard.
This would be an excellent standard if the water was going straight from the tailings facility to the tap; however, that isn’t what happens. The water almost always passes through the environment first. The problem is that trout have a different relationship with water than people do.
A Healthy Water Perspective
Like people, healthy water isn’t just defined merely by what is NOT in the water but also what is IN the water. It is faulty reasoning to think if, for example, too much selenium is harmful that no selenium must be healthy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Water requires a balance of minerals to be considered beneficial for people, animals and aquatic life.
High oxygen levels are also needed for healthy water systems. Nature has several integrated methods for elevating the amount of oxygen in water systems. Large volumes of sterile, oxygen-depleted water are not conducive to marine life.
Finally, bacteria are an essential component of a healthy ecosystem. Bacteria’s role in breaking down elements in the water, including many minerals that can prove problematic, can not be underestimated.
Before water is released to the environment, it needs to be optimized to complement the background water. The treatment process needs to be thorough, with an eye not just on removing harmful elements but also ensuring that the water has been fortified to ensure it contains what is needed to nurture the habitat into which it is being introduced.
Climate change is altering rain patterns and threatening salmonid spawning habitats. Properly treated water, released at a time and in a manner that supplements river systems during spawning seasons, can restore balance to a stressed ecosystem. This is one of many ways a progressive tailing management strategy can create health, not just prevent "sickness".
Randy Christie, the president of NOAH Water Technologies, considers himself to be a Pragmatic Environmentalist, which is to say that facing environmental concerns requires clear-eyed analysis of what you're trying to acheive and the costs associated with trying to attain that goal.
The reality is that virtually everything we do has an environmental implication. The question becomes, how do we reduce the negative impacts most effectively while still advancing human society.
Too much of the environmental discourse trends towards the extremes, while the pragmatic view looks at the issues with a balanced perspective, weighing the various objectives to find the best possible outcomes. And contrary to popular misconceptions, the best course is often less expensive than business as usual.
NOAH Water Technologies
Healthy Planet, One Drop at a Time