Research that aims to reduce the risk of mine tailings failure and a project to improve understanding of the ecology and hydrology of streams in arid areas are two new research projects at The University of Western Australia to receive Federal Government funding.
The funding was announced today by Federal Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham under the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects Scheme.
Professor Andy Fourie, from UWA’s School of Civil, Environmental and Mining Engineering, and his team will use a $630,000 grant plus $720,000 cash and $540,000 in-kind support from partner organisations to develop techniques to predict and mitigate the risk of failure in mine tailings storage facilities.
To extract valuable minerals such as gold and copper, enormous quantities of rock are crushed, pulverised and treated with chemicals, according to Professor Fourie.
“For example, to recover a single gram of gold may require the processing of one tonne of rock,” he said. “Once the mineral of interest is extracted the ground rock, known as mine tailings, must be safely stored, in order to protect the environment and adjacent communities.”
But Professor Fourie said there had been many serious failures of tailings storage facilities with the most recent in March this year.
“The failure of the Samarco tailings storage facility in Brazil in November 2015 resulted in 19 deaths in downstream communities and contamination of the Rio Doce river system, with tailings reaching the Atlantic Ocean, over 600km from the mine,” he said.
The Samarco mine disaster had resulted in costs estimated at more than $7 billion, Professor Fourie said.
“The expert panel that investigated this failure identified static liquefaction as a key trigger that resulted in such a catastrophic outcome,” he said. “Investigating the mechanism of static liquefaction is the focus of our research project.”
In Western Australia there are at least 400 operational tailings storage facilities, with many more no longer in use, according to Professor Fourie.
“To ensure continuing integrity of these facilities in Australia, techniques will be developed in this project to predict and ultimately mitigate the risk of static liquefaction as a potential failure mechanism,” he said. “This will ensure the mining industry in Australia continues to lead the world in making mining safer and protecting adjacent communities.”
Dr Pauline Grierson and Dr Greg Skrzypek, from the West Australian Biogeochemistry Centre within UWA’s School of Biological Sciences, will use a $620,000 grant plus $400,000 cash and $800,000 in-kind support from partner organisations.
They will work with researchers from Rio Tinto and the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training at Flinders University to investigate how surface groundwater affects the ecology of ephemeral streams, with a focus on the Pilbara region of north-western Australia.
Most arid and semi-arid regions around the world are dependent to some extent on groundwater, including industries in those regions, according to Dr Grierson. Within the Pilbara region alone, iron ore production is entirely dependent upon groundwater, and creates earnings of around $50 billion each year for Australia.
“Ephemeral streams, which lack surface flows for many months or even years, are the most common type of stream in Australia, yet we know remarkably little about how they function,” Dr Grierson said.
“These streams and surrounding floodplains support significant aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity and can be important recharge sources for groundwater, However, accelerating demands for water resources as well as changing climate are driving significant changes in stream hydrology, which poses enormous challenges to their sustainable management.”
The multidisciplinary research team will use a range of ecological, geochemical and modelling techniques to assess resilience of ephemeral streams to changes in flows resulting from mining activities and climate-related shifts in recharge.
“Findings from the study will be used in conjunction with monitoring programs to help prevent and mitigate unwanted environmental outcomes of mining and other land management on groundwater resources and ecological values of these important ecosystems,” Dr Grierson said.
Professor Andy Fourie (UWA School of Civil, Environmental and Mining Engineering) (+61 8) 6488 4661
Dr Pauline Grierson (UWA School of Biological Sciences) (+61 8) 6488 7926
Jess Reid (UWA Media and Public Relations Advisor) (+61 8) 6488 6876