How to manage spills in mining

Over the years, the mining industry has been thrust into the media spotlight – but often for the wrong reasons.

On September 2016, the striking image of a red river in Norilsk, Siberia, sent shockwaves through social media and led to a major investigation from Russian authorities. The cause of this ‘natural phenomenon’? A burst pipeline at a nearby nickel smelting plant that led to gallons of industrial waste pouring into the river.

Back home the impact of these mining and industrial spills has been felt too.

On April 16 2018, a gold mine in Fosterville was fined $8000 after an industrial discharge caused mine slurry to flow into the nearby freshwater dams. The company told the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) an emergency valve had been tampered with. But according to the EPA report, “…there were no controls in place to prevent tampering with the valve and to prevent the discharge from occurring.”

Of course, pollution caused by mining operations is more than just a PR disaster. Our beautiful ecosystem is the one that faces the long-term consequences. Mining spills can contaminate public waterways, cause blockages in drainage systems, and disrupt the growth and reproduction of aquatic plants and marine life.

For these reasons, mining companies should take part in a risk assessment. These are a valuable exercise that can help site operators identify, control, and properly dispose of spills specific to their mining site. This means giving workers not just the right tools to manage spills – but also onsite training, so they know how and when to use the right tools for the right job.

But what kinds of spills should site operators keep an eye out for?

The most common spills on mining sites are hydrocarbon spills. Particularly hydraulic fluid leaks from mining vehicles and machinery. Often these types of leaks occur during a routine inspection, or the hydraulic system is not de-pressurised before an inspection – which causes hot fluid to erupt from the machine.

Oil, fuel and general purpose spill kits help to improve emergency spill response times. These kits contain specialist tools designed to safely manage different kinds of spills – from oil and fuel to chemicals and general site waste. By having these kits colour-coded and placed in different parts of the site, they can be quickly deployed to control any kind of spill.

Another issue for mining sites is groundwater contamination. During excavation, it is important to control the flow of groundwater. This prevents the risk of site pooling and wastewater from flowing into nearby lakes, rivers and dams. Sump pumping is the most common way to control and redirect the flow of groundwater. By collecting the groundwater in a sump, it is pumped away from the excavation site and set through an appropriate outlet to be filtered.

But what if contaminated fluid has already entered a body of water? In these cases, oil spills are the most common and dangerous. That’s because there is very little time to respond to a waterborne oil spill. In fact, in the span of just 10 minutes, 300 gallons (that’s 1135.62 litres to be exact!) of oil can spread to a radius of 160 feet.

One way to contain waterborne spills is to set up containment booms around the affected area. These form a temporary barrier to stop the spread of oil, hydrocarbons and other hazardous material. Containment booms are lightweight – typically made of foam or inflated with air – so they are easy to deploy in any scenario.

By using the latest spill management technology, mining companies can greatly reduce the risk of spills and the effect these spills have on the environment, the health and safety of their workers… and the reputation of their business.