April 2015    Print this article

New annual fees for the disposal of mine tailings in accumulation areas

Louis Bienvenu, Eng.
Ministère de l’Énergie et des Ressources naturelles

The province’s program to reduce industrial waste (Programme de réduction des rejets industriels: PRRI) was set up in 1988 to gradually reduce the discharge of industrial waste into the environment. In 2002, a decree was issued that subjected the mining and primary metal manufacturing industries to this program. The targeted mining facilities are those with annual extraction capacities exceeding 2,000,000 metric tons, or an annual ore or tailings processing capacity exceeding 50,000 metric tons.

Since January 2014, in addition to industrial waste in the form of effluent or atmospheric emissions, each tonne of mine tailings deposited in an accumulation area is also subject to a fee. The province’s Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment and the Fight against Climate Change (Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et de la Lutte contre les Changements climatiques: MDDELCC) hopes that mining companies will reduce (or valorize) the mine tailings deposited in accumulation areas to lessen the footprint of mining activities and improve the social acceptability of mining projects.

The fee will depend on how hazardous the waste is and the amount deposited in the accumulation area. The total charge will not exceed $1,000,000 per year per mining facility. For more details, please consult the fee guide on the MDDELCC website (available in French only): Guide explicatif - Droits annuels exigibles des titulaires d’une attestation d’assainissement en milieu industriel.

The financial repercussions of these duties could be considerable. For example, almost 100% of the mined rock extracted from a gold mine cannot be sold and ends up in the accumulation area. In the case of iron, the total charge will also be high due to the large amount of waste material produced from these large-tonnage mines. If the mine is in a northern environment, far from towns and industries, there are also fewer chances to valorize the waste materials.

Mine waste valorization

To decrease the amount of duties to pay, the MDDELCC is studying the possibility of applying a credit if the mining operation valorizes its waste. The Ministry is currently working on a project to provide guidelines for regional representatives who will be assessing whether a mining company’s valorization project would qualify for a deduction. The credit will be calculated based on the total amount of waste material removed from the accumulation area for valorization purposes, as long as the duties on the waste have already been paid. No refunds will be allowed: the credit will be applied to subsequent years.  

Over the years, mining companies have found ways to re-use mining waste for a variety of applications, including:

Despite these efforts, there will still be some leftover mine waste that must be stored in accumulation areas. And it is this portion that is the most difficult to valorize. One solution is to fill the open pit with mine waste. Since 2003 in California, a mining company intending to operate an open pit mine must fill it with mine waste once all the ore has been extracted (Surface mining and reclamation act (SMARA) regulations, article 3704.1). Unfortunately, crushed rock occupies about 50% more space than intact rock, so it remains physically impossible to fit all the mine waste into the pit. The California regulation provides for excess waste to be landscaped in a way that is harmonious with the mine’s natural environment.

Most of the time, this is not an economic solution unless the deposit is exceptionally rich. Mining producers thus face an enormous challenge if they wish to reduce their annual duties for mine waste disposal, particularly for open pit mines in northern environments far from potential centres of consumption. 

Given this background, the issue of mine waste fees has provoked much reflection and discussion within the mining industry, and some companies are actively researching ways to valorize their waste materials.    

For its part, the province’s Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (Ministère de l’Énergie et des Ressources naturelles: MERN) is supporting the mining industry’s efforts through its joint research program on sustainable development in mining (Programme de recherche en partenariat sur le développement durable du secteur minier). In fact, the MERN identified mine waste valorization as one of the main fields of research to focus on. It is now up to researchers to propose suitable projects. The third and last call for proposals will be held in the fall of 2015. For more information, please contact: josee.reid@frq.gouv.qc.ca

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