June/July 2009

Leading from the tailing end

Iron Ore Company of Canada earns sustainable development award

By R. Bergen

 

IOC introduced the wetlands education and awareness program to the grade four class of the Labrador City Elementary school.


Reclamation efforts reward the diligent and the patient. Payoff for such projects can take years, often generations, as native plants and animals slowly recolonize rehabilitated areas. By these standards, results of the innovation at Iron Ore Company of Canada’s (IOC) operation in western Labrador have been swift. Last spring, the water of Wabush Lake was a rusted red, coloured by the fine iron-stained quartz tailings created by the ore processing; this year it is blue. The tailings treatment plant put into service last fall restored the lake to its traditional hue in short order.


It is apt, then, that IOC should receive the CIM/Syncrude Award for Excellence in Sustainable Development for 2008. The award honours those whose work successfully combines and balances economic and social development as well as environmental protection. The nominations are vetted by CIM and handed over to a selection committee comprised of members uninvolved in the nomination process. While the award recognized a specific achievement, those involved in IOC’s reclamation efforts value it as something other than applause for their dramatic final act.

“It feels good, because it is the recognition of a long journey,” said Patrick Lauziere, IOC’s manager of environment and sustainable development. “We’ve been investing a lot of energy and capital in that project. It’s the result of 10 years of research and development with the involvement of researchers, consultants, engineering firms and biologists.”

Over the last decade, IOC has been addressing the problem of advancing tailings, by gradually reshaping the 540-hectare area affected by what is now nearly 50 years of ore production, transforming parcels of land into diverse and productive habitats. IOC’s earth movers have sculpted hills, lagoons and islands across the area. The tailings were primed with hay and manure to support vegetation. After a couple of years, when the soil was ready, tractors sowed seeds to encourage plant life and minimize dust lift-off.

Knowledge of what would and would not grow was hard won, commented Lauziere. As part of the closure management process, trials and errors on test plots began in the 1990s. The lessons from these trials were then applied to the project. The formalized tailings management process began in 1999 with public consultation and the input of various stakeholders and governmental bodies in response to revised metal mining effluent regulations.

IOC devised a plan to use the topography of the lake along with a flocculation process to curtail the effects of suspended tailings. The tailings discharge was consolidated at one point and a polymer was mixed with the effluent, allowing it to coagulate and sink to the bottom of a naturally occurring trench in Wabush Lake. Lauziere said the combination of the trench and the flocculant formed a “virtual dyke” that will contain the tailings produced over the rest of the approximately 30-year projected mine life.

Environmental modelling of the project’s future outcomes continues with help from Laval University and the University of Illinois. Along with the development of the flocculation project, various habitat rehabilitation schemes were started. Nesting boxes for goldeneye ducks and osprey platforms have been installed to encourage biodiversity. A fish ladder now connects Wabush Lake to other lakes upstream.

Even before the flocculation plant was set to work, the reclamation project earned recognition for its restoration of waterfowl and migratory bird habitat. Perhaps a more impressive testament to IOC’s diligence in restoring the area is the humble project Lauziere terms “small mammal relocation.” In and around the operation that turns out up to 18 million tons of iron ore each year, mice are trapped and turned out into the newly established grasslands.

While the results may not be visible from space — as is the lake — it is an equally vital example of the work being done.

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