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Reddish and Barren Tailings Landscape Transformed into a Green, Productive and Functional Ecosystem - The Tailings Rehabilitation

Experience of Coral Bay Nickel Corporation


Engineer Briccio T. Abela Coral Bay Nickel Corporation

Introduction
Coral Bay Nickel Corporation (CBNC) decommissioned its Tailings Storage Facility No.1 or TSF-1 last June 2010. The tailings dam's rocky outside slope and the reddish tailings stored inside the dam are barren and void of plants except for some scattered small patches of grasses on the dam slope. The wide and ugly landscape is a loathsome picture to behold especially on satellite images. We started rehabilitation works the moment the tailings soil was stable and accessible and just after 16 months work that started last May 2011, the TSF-1 landscape can be likened to an ugly caterpillar that transformed into a beautiful butterfly.

Rehabilitation Objectives
We applied the planned decant system improvements last April-June 2011, we conducted planting trials from December 2010 to March 2011, and we started massive planting works last May 2011 with the following four main objectives:

1.

Physical Stability

A tailings storage facility has an inherent risk of dam break and tailings spill specially during stormy weather. The dam should be kept physically stable at all times. Potential cause of dam break is overtopping of pond water. This is prevented by the TSF-1's effective decant system that have the capacity to discharge pond water at all times. At TSF-1 the discharge channel is two inclined underground concrete gutters with a channel opening of about 1 square meter each located adjacent to the northwest dam where the channel exits at the dam s outside toe. The spill level of the main spillway that is Gutter-A is at 65.0 meters above sea level (masl) that has a free board of 3.2 m since the dam crest is at 68.2 masl. Gutter-B, the secondary spillway, which is constructed parallel to Gutter-A and just 40 m distant has a spill level of 66.0 masl. After the decommissioning of TSF-1, an additional third emergency spillway at elevation 66.0 masl was constructed at the northwest tip of the dam which is also adjacent to the two inclined gutters. This is a horizontal concrete square culvert with 1 square meter opening that will be the discharge channel of water in an emergency case that the gutter will be clogged accidentally by debris or in extremely strong rains that the discharge water volume can't be accommodated by the two inclined gutters. Gutter-A (the main spillway) was provided with a settling sump 3 m wide at the base and 100 m long located upstream of the spill gate. The spill gate has 3 removable concrete planks, each one is 30 cm in height that could be installed in order to control flow and create a deeper pond in the settling sump. During heavy rains, 1 plank installed was found sufficient to effect settling of silt and discharge clear pond water. An added factor to the clear water discharge is the vegetation that covers most of the previously bare surface and the 50cm deep by 100cm wide ditch network dug on the lower elevation of the tailings pond. The efficient decant
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system allows the complete discharge of tailings pond water exposing the whole tailings surface to sunlight during sunny days resulting to water evaporation and natural compaction of the soil. We do continuous monitoring of any seepage especially during rainy days in order to detect early the possibility of water piping, if any. Gullies at dam slopes that could be created by water run-off were totally eliminated by the vegetation planted which now totally covers the whole embankment slopes. Figure 1. Gutter A - TSF-1 Main Spillway Settling sump Spill channel:

Figure 2. The 3 spill channels of TSF-1


Culvert Gutter B

Gutter A

2.

Visual Acceptability

The 80-hectare tailings surface area is reddish-brown and the 15-hectare embankment area has a rocky surface that creates a grossly negative image seen via satellite or Google earth. We eliminated this negative aesthetic impact by growing vegetation in the whole area so it may be colored green. The challenge we overcame was the fact that the area is relatively wide and void of any organic matter and basic plant nutrients. The usual practice of covering the surface for rehabilitation with nutrient-rich top soil in order to grow plants is not feasible since the tailings surface soil is so soft that it cannot hold trucks and other heavy equipment that will be needed in surface covering works. In addition, borrowing top soil to cover the 80 hectares tailings would likewise create a destroyed landscape of the borrow area. We applied the following strategies in order to successfully grow vegetation in the TSF-1 tailings soil and rocky dam slope: 2.1 Organic matter was introduced into the tailings surface which decomposed in due time and served as available nutrients for plants. The main organic matter used was rice hull, the waste product of rice mills in the nearby communities. This waste rice hull was acquired for free, hauled and disposed into tailings surface cracks that were formed during tailings soil moisture evaporation. However, only a small area was
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2.2

filled with rice hull because of limited supply nearby and the difficulty of bringing it to the middle portion of the tailings pond due to soft soil and surface cracks. Fertile and nutrient-rich soil planting media containing a mixture of top soil, vermicompost and carbonized rice hull was used. This soil media was placed in small (6 x 8 ) plastic pots where the plants were grown for 3-4 weeks into sturdy condition prior to transplanting. 2.2.1 The top soil is sourced out from nearby farms where we literally buy the land or soil placed in bags. 2.2.2 The compost is produced in our vermicomposting facilities. We have a total of 15 vermicomposting beds that can produce about 10 cubic meters of humus-rich and microbe-rich compost every month. The main composting materials are rice hay (i.e. dayami) which is abundant in nearby rice farms and cow manure which is bought from the gatherers in cow grazing lands nearby. The vermin utilized is the African night crawlers species. We started with just 3 kg of vermin with 3 composting beds last May 2007 and we have expanded at present to 15 vermicomposting beds, 1.8 cubic meters each in size (with dimensions 3 m long, 1.5 m wide, and 0.4 m high). The quantity of available vermin for composting is now about 80 kg. 2.2.3 The carbonized rice hull was sourced out from a rice mill operator that agreed to supply it as needed. We provided the carbonizing equipment which is made of a one-third metal drum cut crosswise with holes and chimney to the rice mill operator and conducted training to the rice mill workers on how to do carbonization. We then buy the produced carbonized rice hull at a reasonable price. We planted locally growing surface cover crops composed mainly of fast growing vines, grasses, and herbs that are forage species as well. Locally growing herbs with wide green leaves were also planted. Prior to massive planting, we first conducted planting trials. Three trial plots were established in different locations both on the dam slope and on the tailings surface soil. Coco-coir net was used to cover the dam slopes prior to planting. The coco-coir net served to stabilize the slope and also served as an organic matter that the plant s roots can hold on as it grows. The following vines and herbs listed below that were proven suitable for planting based on trial plots were planted. Humidicola, stylo and centrosema were used for slope stabilization while all plants described below were used as tailings soil cover crops:

2.3

2.3.1

Brachiaria Humidicola a strong creeping perennial grass which forms a dense matted sward that grows well in infertile soils and full sunlight. Its main use is as a permanent pasture for grazing, particularly in wet areas. It establishes reliably and spreads rapidly from stem cuttings. At TSF-1, it was planted at 0.3 m x 0.3 m spacing on dam slopes and at 0.5 m x 0.5 m spacing on tailings soil (Please see Figure 3). After just two months, the planted humidicola already densely crept and covered its immediate vicinity. Humidicola is the main grass use as cover crop in greening the TSF-1 landscape.

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2.3.3

2.3.4

2.3.7

2.3.8

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2.3.6

Elephant ear plant, locally called badyang (Xanthosoma robustum) this plant can be found in the wild and is usually abundant in the lowlands. It was chosen as a rehabilitation plant because of its wide leaves that can grow as much as 3 feet long and 2 feet wide that could contribute much in fast greening the tailings soil landscape. Additionally, it also has the capacity to produce large amount of biomass. At TSF-1, elephant ear is planted at 2.5 m x 2.5 m spacing (Please see Figure 4). High value crops like vegetables, watermelon, cut flowers, sunflower, jasmine (sampaguita) as well as rice (palay) were planted and produced good harvest. Sugarcane was also found to grow well. The purpose of planting these crops is more of an experiment on the tailings soils productivity in addition to aesthetics value. Results proved that the soil can be restored into a productive agricultural farm with inputs of carbonized rice hull and vermicompost. Diverse other grasses and vines whose seeds or roots were naturally present in the soil purchased from nearby farms also sprouted and are growing naturally. These added to the biodiversity of plants that now occupies the tailings landscape.

2.3.5

Banana the species planted was mostly the saba" variety. It was chosen as one of the plants because it has wide leaves that could help in quickly greening the tailings landscape and it can also produce a large amount of biomass. Banana leaves are food for cattle and of course its fruit is food for humans. At TSF-1, banana is planted at 5 m x 5 m spacing (Please see Figure 4). The bananas grow well especially in areas where the raw rice hull was introduced. After 18 months the bananas that were first planted in the tailings surface trial plots already bear fruit.

2.3.2

Stylosanthes seabrana an erect, branching, green, bushy, 40-70 cm tall perennial legume with woody base. It is tolerant to prolonged dry season. It is suitable in clay soils. Use widely as grazed pasture legume. At TSF-1, this was planted at 0.3 m x 0.3 m spacing on slopes and 0.5 m x 0.5 m spacing on tailings soil (Please see Figure 3). It was planted in rows between humidicola for the purpose of plant diversity. Centrosema pubescens - a perennial, twining, and trailing legume which will climb associated grasses and plants. Individual plants can spread 1-2 m from the strong taproot. Used as a permanent pasture for cattle, this legume improves soil fertility by adding nitrogen into the soil. At TSF-1, centrosema is planted at 0.3 m x 0.3 m spacing on slopes and 0.5 m x 0.5 m spacing on tailings soil (Please see Figure 3). It is planted in rows between humidicola for the purpose of plant diversity and additionally as a biological nitrogen fixer. Wild sugar cane (Saccharum spontaneum) and Napier grass (Pennistum purpurium) - a tall grass that can grow as much as 3 m high. This plant is tolerant to many soil textures and moisture levels. It produces a lot of biomass and its potential as a source of bio-fuel is being discovered. It grows so well in infertile soil that it needs just about 500 cc of fertile soil input to grow in the tailings soil of TSF-1. It was planted at 2.5 m x 2.5 m spacing (Please see Figure 4). Wild sugar cane and Napier grass are use as permanent pasture for cattle.

Figure 3. TSF-1 Surface Planting Plot Design; 1 m x 1 m area for Grasses & Vines: urface This planting design is intersperse within the 10 m x 10 m plot design shown in Figure 2. interspersed

Legend:

- humidicola: 0.5 m x 0.5 m distance - stylosanthes or centrosema: 0.5 m x 0.5 m distance

Figure 4. TSF-1 Surface Planting Plot Design 10 m x 10 m area for Banana, Elephant urface Design; ear and wild sugar cane:

Legend: Banana: 5 m x 5 m distance Wild sugar cane: 2.5 m x 2.5 m distance Elephant ear (or wild sugar cane): 2.5 m x 2.5 m distance cane)

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After the application of the greening strategies outlined above, the decommissioned TSF-1 was noticeably transformed from an ugly looking landscape into a vibrant green grass land. After just sixteen (16) months of planting from May 2011 to August 2012, seventy (70) hectares of the more or less ninety five (95) hectares of previously bare and rocky and reddish brown landscape are now covered in green. This resulted in the following positive impacts: A. Negative TSF-1 landscape aesthetics were eliminated and converted into beautiful scenery. B. Soil erosion during rains was drastically minimized resulting to clear pond water discharge. Conversely, the potential of dust generation from open areas during sunny days was also averted. C. Diverse fauna like insects, birds, rodents, snakes, monitor lizard and the like have now started to come and occupy the area. A colony of wild honey bees was observed to form a hive in an inverted metal drum near the sunflower garden starting last August 2012. D. The TSF-1 Rehabilitation project resulted in positive impact on the nearby communities by providing employment to about one hundred people composed of local indigenous people and indigents who served as workers. Figure 5. TSF-1 Satellite Image before rehabilitation (April 2010)

Figure 6. TSF-1 Aerial Photograph after rehabilitation (October 29, 2012)

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3.

Productivity

The productivity of the decommissioned TSF-1 was well incorporated in the strategies outlined for its rehabilitation. Five (5) species of grasses and vines planted were all forage species. The planted area can served as a vast pasture land for cattle, goat, and other grazing animals. The success of cut flower plantation trials opens a potential as an alternative farm product for supply for Puerto Princesa City which at present still acquires cut flowers from outside of Palawan. In addition, the flowers are also a potential source of essential oils. The wild sugar cane and the sugarcane itself as a potential resource for ethanol can be explored. Basing from the success of the vegetable garden trials and even the rice farm, the tailings soil can be developed into a productive agricultural land. The needed inputs of carbonized rice hull and vermicompost can be easily produced from abundantly available materials. The experimental vegetable and rice farms using only organic inputs also serve as a model for local farmers (who are working in this tailings dam rehab project) to improve their farming methods. For some parties that may have apprehension on the suitability of growing food products in the tailings soil because of toxic elements, I would like to give assurance based on laboratory results of the soil and the food products extract that the TSF-1 farm products are safe for human consumption. I would even venture to advertise that TSF-1 farm products are fortified with iron that is much needed by the human body since the tailings soil contains about 35% iron. Lastly, one of the intents of planting the different flowers in about one-half hectare tailings soil area is to develop a butterfly garden without nets or enclosures. Part of the plans yet to be implemented next year 2013 is to have a plantation of all locally known medicinal plants to serve as a source of medicine for indigenous people and locals who still practice the use of these plants for medicine. Another plan to be implemented in 2013 is the development of wetlands in order to enhance further the biodiversity of the TSF-1 landscape. In the near future, after all the planned rehabilitation works are completed, the TSF-1 rehabilitated landscape will be an interesting site for students educational field trips and for tourists of varied interests.

4.

Self-sustainability.

The end goal of the rehabilitation of the TSF-1 landscape is to re-create a functional ecosystem. Towards this goal, our planting program widely applied principles of natural or organic farming. Diverse plant species that included biological nitrogen fixers were introduced. The tailings soil was void of nutrients and organic matter that will sustain plant growth. This was remedied by our use of large amount of carbonized rice hull and vermicompost inputs. The carbonized rice hull is the main source of organic carbon that also served to enhance microbial growth of the microbes present in the humus-rich and microberich vermicompost. In addition, the fertile soil coming from nearby farms also carries soilinherent nutrients and microorganisms that will enhance sustainability. The presence of microorganisms and the diverse flora and fauna that already occupies the TSF-1 rehabilitated landscape will enhance the nutrient cycle and keep the re-created grassland ecosystem functional and sustainable.
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Concluding Remarks
Overall, the previously ugly and barren tailings dam landscape was successfully converted into a beautiful, productive, sustainable and functional ecosystem with a very safe and stable dam structure. The millions of pesos spent to accomplish the resourceful and innovative efforts give proof to CBNC s commitment to be a responsible mineral processing company.

Acknowledgement
I am greatly indebted to the support given by CBNC Management in the TSF-1 rehabilitation that needed millions of pesos for its realization. Please allow me to mention that the MGBIVB Regional Director Roland De Jesus supported the rehabilitation project and encouraged CBNC Management to pursue the rehabilitation works in order to show proof that responsible mining and mine rehabilitation are possible and can be done. Lastly, let me express gratitude to the exceptional dedication of the whole EMQCS staff and tailings dam workers who worked beyond the call of duty in order to achieve the very challenging TSF-1 rehabilitation objectives. Above all, to God be the glory that causes the grasses we planted to grow.

References:

Prepared by BMP Environment & Community Care, Inc. for CBNC. Final Mine Rehabilitation and/or Decommissioning Plan for HPP Lines 1 & 2; (approved by CLRF on December 14, 2009). Munroe, Glenn. Manual of On-Farm Vermicomposting and Vermiculture, Organic Agriculture Center of Canada Tongway, David. The LFA Monitoring Procedure: A monitoring procedure to assess minesite rehabilitation success. Part 1: Introduction to the Field Procedure Anuj K. Chandel, Om V. Singh, M. Lakshmi Narasu, L. Venkateswar Rao. Bioconversion of Saccharum spontaneum (wild sugarcane) hemicellulosic hydrolysate into ethanol by mono and co-cultures of Pichia stipitis NCIM3498 and thermotolerant Saccharomyces cerevisiae-VS3. New Biotechnology, Volume 28, Issue 6, October 2011, Pages 593-599. http://www.tropicalforages.info/key/Forages/Media/Html/Stylosanthes_seabrana.htm http://www.tropicalforages.info/key/Forages/Media/Html/Centrosema_pubescens.htm http://www.pasturepicker.com.au/Html/Humidicola.htm http://www.ecosystems.ws/ecosystem_concept.htm

About the Author: Briccio T. Abela, a Chemical Engineer, is a farmer's son whose father's legacy included a love of the land and pride in being a Palaweo. He passed these values on to his children and to environmental science students in Palawan State University where he taught during a break from working as a Grade Control Engineer for the Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corporation. He also served as Environmental Laboratory Manager and Environmental Monitoring Point Person for the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff. He joined Coral Bay Nickel Corporation in 2006, where he is currently the Section Head of the Environmental Management and Quality Control Section.
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