Drake has a history of gold mining spanning back to 1886 when gold was dredged from Plumbago Creek. Since then the source of much of the alluvial gold was found just to the north of Drake. Many pits were created in the search for gold since the 1920s. These pits were relatively large mines in themselves and were given names such as White Rock, Carrington, Strauss, Lady Hampden and others. The mines were a source of wealth (during the good times) and a source of debt (during the bad times) with the mining operations completely ceasing in the 1990’s.
|One of the old pits at Drake shortly after treatment with red mud|
Because financial stresses encourage people to take shortcuts to save money several things have happened at Drake that has caused elevated metal contamination to the environment of Plumbago Creek, a tributary of the Clarence River. Though sometimes people are just lazy or even ignorant of the possible impacts of incorrectly disposing of waste materials (Just like at home). Mineral deposits of the type at Drake contains minerals called sulphides, these include pyrite (iron sulphide), chalcopyrite (copper-iron sulphide) and sphalerite (zinc-iron sulphide). When exposed to air and water these minerals break down creating acids (called acid mine drainage) that cause the metals to be dissolved in any waters and therefore easily discharged into the environment. This is what has happened at the old pits near Drake and also at the waste dumps and even the access roads which were surfaced with waste rock.
But the story of the Drake mines also involve another waste material deliberately brought in from central Queensland. This material is referred to as Red Mud and is caustic (highly alkaline) waste material from aluminium refineries. But this is actually a good news story! Basic chemistry demonstrates that when you add acid and alkaline material together the material becomes neutral and metal contaminants precipitate out meaning any discharged water is decontaminated. Essentially an environmentally serious problem (disposal of aluminium refinery waste) has actually proven to be a resource. The trials and remediation of the pits was so successful that the technique was patented and a commercial product developed out of the Red Mud and given the name TerraB.
Application of the Red Mud was both as slurry pumped by ‘sprinkler’ directly into contaminated water left at the site or incorporated into waste rock or used as treatment liners. The picture shows one of the pits that I visited more than a decade ago when this technique was being trialled. It may look bad but really it is just suspended sediment that will settle out, while the acid and heavy metals have been neutralised. Some trials in waste rock have even found that Red Mud can actually reduce the uptake of heavy metals by plants, better than traditional rehabilitation techniques such as lime (Maddocks et al 2009).
The area around drake is interesting for many a geological reason, from its formation, the minerals found, the historical mining, contamination and rehabilitation. Who would have thought that adding two waste products together would fix both problems?! Two wrongs do make a right!
*Clark, M.W., Walsh, S.R. & Smith, J.V. 2001. The distribution of heavy metals in an abandoned mining area; a case study of Strauss Pit, the Drake mining area, Australia: implications for the environmental management of mine sites. Environmental Geology v40.
*Houston, M.J. 1999. The Geology and Mineralisation of the Drake Mine Area, Northern New South Wales. Papers, New England Orogen Conference, Armidale 1999.
*Maddocks, G., Lin, C. & McConchie, D. 2009. Field scale remediate of mine wastes at an abandoned gold mine, Australia II: Effects on plant growth and groundwater. Environmental Geology