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Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) and its control

Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) and its control

Author: Partha Das Sharma (B.Tech-Hons., in Mining Engineering)

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Acid mine drainage (AMD) is one of the most significant environmental challenges
facing the mining industry worldwide. It occurs as a result of natural oxidation of
sulphide minerals contained in mining wastes at operating and closed/decommissioned
mine sites. AMD may adversely impact the surface water and groundwater quality and
land use due to its typical low pH, high acidity and elevated concentrations of metals and
sulphate content. Once it develops at a mine, its control can be difficult and expensive. If
generation of AMD cannot be prevented, it must be collected and treated. Treatment of
AMD usually costs more than control of AMD and may be required for many years after
mining activities have ceased. Therefore, application of appropriate control methods to
the site at the early stage of the mining would be beneficial. Although prevention of
AMD is the most desirable option, a cost-effective prevention method is not yet
available. The most effective method of control is to minimize penetration of air and
water through the waste pile using a cover, either wet (water) or dry (soil), which is
placed over the waste pile. Despite their high cost, these covers cannot always completely
stop the oxidation process and generation of AMD. Application of more than one option
might be required. Early diagnosis of the problem, identification of appropriate
prevention/control measures and implementation of these methods to the site would
reduce the potential risk of AMD generation. AMD prevention/control measures broadly
include use of covers, control of the source, migration of AMD, and treatment.

Introduction - Acid mine drainage (AMD) is one of the most perpetual pollution
problems which occurs world-wide in the mining areas. It refers to the distinctive type of
wastewater that originates from the weathering and leaching of sulphide minerals present
in coal and metalliferrous ore bodies.

In fact, AMD from abandoned coal mines affects the quality of both groundwater and
surface water. Drainage results from various mining methods performed in the watershed.
These methods include underground mining, strip mining, and auger mining. The mining
process exposes iron sulfide (pyrite) and unremoved coal contained in the sandstone
overburden to air and water. These oxidizing conditions result in an increase of acidity,
which subsequently decreases the pH and increases the concentrations of dissolved
metals. These consequences lead to an overall degradation of water quality and the
inability to support aquatic life.

Mineral production is an important component of the economy for many countries, and in
some cases it can be the major source of international revenue. However, mining and
mineral production operations that are not well managed can contaminate groundwater

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Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) and its control

and surface water in the form of AMD, and can adversely affect the health of nearby
communities that rely on this source for drinking-water or agriculture. Extractive
industries include mining of mineral deposits (principally metal-bearing ores and coal
deposits), oil and natural gas production, and quarrying for building and road-making
materials. Poorly operated or abandoned mine sites are often significant sources of water
contamination; contaminants of particular health concern from these sources include
heavy metals, and mineral-processing chemicals, such as cyanide. Water pumped from
abandoned mine shafts and open-cut pits is often used for water supply, and is generally
safe and reliable. However, these water sources may sometimes be contaminated by
mineral processing chemicals, acid mine drainage (AMD) and waste disposal. These risks
must be considered and assessed to determine whether such water sources are safe to be
used for drinking-water supply.

Pyrite oxidation mechanisms - Sulfide oxidation, part of sulfur's biotic/abiotic cycle, is

an important natural phenomenon. However, because of the sulfide's association with
metallic ores and fossil fuels in the form of pyrite (FeS2) and the world's increasing
demand for metals and fossil fuels, sulfide oxidation in nature is in some state of
perturbation. This perturbation, which results from land disturbances (e.g., mining, and/or
ore processing), produces acid drainage often enriched with heavy metals.

Chemistry and role of water in AMD- Acid mine drainage is an extremely acidic iron
and sulphate rich drainage that forms under natural conditions when certain coal seams
are mined and the associated strata are exposed to a new oxidizing environment. During
this process, a variety of iron sulphides are exposed to the atmosphere and oxidize in the
presence of oxygen and water to form soluble hydrous iron sulphates. These compounds
usually appear as yellow and white crusts along certain horizons on the exposed surfaces
of the pyritic material in coal mines.

Some of the oxidation products have been identified as melanterite (white crystals of
FeSO4), copiapite (yellow crystals of ferric sulpahte Fe2(SO4)3, halotrichite (white
crystals of iron and/ or magnesium aluminium sulpahte), and alunogenite (white crystals
of aluminum sulphate). These minerals are present in the hydrated form, the amount of
water varying with the mode of formation. Following reactions represent the oxidation of
FeS2 and production of acid (H+):

2FeS2(S) + 7O2 + 2H2 = 2Fe2+ + 4 SO24 + 4H+

Fe2+ + ¼ O2 + O2 + H+ = Fe3+ + ½ H2O

Fe3+ + 3H2O = Fe(OH)3(S) + 3H+

FeS2(S) + 14Fe3++ 8H2O = 15Fe2+ + 2 SO 24 + 16H+

Secondary reactions also take place between iron sulphates, sulphuric acid and the
compounds in nearby clays, limestones, sandstones and various organic substances that

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Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) and its control

are present in mines or streams to produce the variety of chemicals found in mine

Moreover, water appears to be essential for this chemical reaction. The rate of pyrite
oxidation increases with water vapour pressure until at 100% relative humidity, the rate
becomes equal to that for immersed pyrite. It has been suggested that water may not
necessarily be a reactant; it may act as a medium for the transfer of oxidation products
from reaction sites in view of the fact that the rate of the oxidation reaction increases as
the concentration nears saturation state.

Microbial aspects of AMD (Role of Bacteria in AMD) - The formation of acid mine
water may be attributed to non-biological and biological oxidation of sulphur and iron
sulphide in a mine in the presence of moisture and oxygen. Microbial oxidation plays a
more important role than non-biological oxidation. The possible involvement of bacteria
in the formation of AMD was first reported in 1919 by Powell and Parr, who found that
coal inoculated with an unsterilised sulphate solution produced drainage with higher
concentration of sulphate than did sterile controls. Colmer et al. demonstrated that

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bacteria play a role in iron oxidation in acid mine water, based on the observations on
iron oxidation that occurred in water samples freed from bacteria by filtration through
Scitz filter/millipore filter or treatment with bactericidal agents.

Conditions for microbial oxidation - The important requirements in the microbial

oxidation of sulphide minerals are (i) an energy source and (ii) adequate supply of O2,
CO2 and essential nutrients. In mines, appreciable percentages of CO2, O2, N2, etc. are
present. These gases help in the growth of bacterial cells. Bacteria assimilate CO2 as the
sole carbon source at the expense of energy available from the oxidation of Fe2+ and
sulphide minerals. The energy derived from the oxidation of FeSO4 can support the
growth of only a few species of bacteria.

Discussion on impacts on water quality due to AMD from mining operation -

Typically, mining operation include a number of phases that can have different impacts on
water quality; these are listed below:

* Exploration. Exploration for mineral and petroleum resources involves field surveys,
drilling programmes and exploratory excavations. Some water contamination can be
produced at this stage from land clearing; for example, if clearing exposes a layer with high
content of heavy metals, leading to contamination of stormwater by the heavy metals and by
waste disposal from exploration camps. Unfilled exploration boreholes can allow
contaminants from the surface to be washed into groundwater without being attenuated in the
soil profile.

* Projectdevelopment. The development of a mining site and supporting infrastructure

causes extensive land clearance. Also, groundwater and surface water contamination can be
caused by spills and leaks from fuel storage tanks, and from waste disposal.

* Mine operation. The type of operations can include pumping from boreholes (oil and
natural gas, solution mining), heap leaching of rock piles, underground mining, open cuts and
surface dredging. Oxidation and leaching of minerals from mining spoil and other waste
products can contaminate groundwater and surface water.

* Beneficiation. Processing of minerals using a variety of mechanical and chemical treatment

processes can be the most significant source of water contamination at a mine site. The major
sources of contamination from mineral processing are leaks from storage ponds holding
processing liquors, and leakage from tailings dams used to separate and recover processing
liquids from fine solid wastes.

* Mine closure. Closure and rehabilitation of a mine site to mitigate environmental

impacts (e.g. stabilisation and revegetation of waste rock and tailings) can contaminate
groundwater if not well managed. Sources of contamination include continued seepage
from waste rock and tailings if these are not well stabilised; salinisation of groundwater
by evaporation from abandoned open pits and the excessive use of fertilizers in
rehabilitation programmes.

* Effects of mining on water quality - The type of water contamination produced by a

mining operation depends to a large extent on the nature of the mineralization and on the

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processing chemicals used to extract or concentrate minerals from the host rock. The
water contaminants of most concern are summarized below:
Type of mine Wastewater Characteristics of Chemicals possibly
generated wastewater contained
Open-cut and Acid mine drainage Low pH (< 4.5, Arsenic, antimony,
underground mining from waste rock heaps possibly as low as 2) barium, cadmium,
of base metal sulfide and ammonium of water in springs, chromium, cobalt,
deposits, precious nitrate-fuel oil seeps, open cuts and fluoride, lead,
metal deposits or explosive used for streams draining from mercury,
uranium deposits with rock blasting the mine site. molybdenum, nickel,
sulfide minerals, Extensive vegetation nitrate, selenium,
sulfide rich heavy death, yellow or white sulfate, uranium
mineral sands, coal salt crusts on the soil (radon may be of
deposits surface, pale blue concern where
cloudy appearance of there are high uranium
surface water concentrations)

Base metal and Flotation agents used Depends on the type

precious metal to concentrate of mineralization —
deposits minerals from ore; the contaminants from
main sources of flotation agents of
contamination are health concern include
seepage from chromium,
processing mills and cresols, cyanide
tailings dams compounds, phenols
and xanthates
Gold deposits Chemicals used to High pH of water (up Arsenic, free cyanide,
extract gold from ore to pH 10) when weak acid
(cyanide and cyanide is used dissociable cyanide,
mercury), particularly mercury
from tailings dams
Uranium deposits Acid leaching Low pH of water, Arsenic, antimony,
(especially sulfuric high sulfate barium, cadmium,
acid) used to extract concentrations in chromium, cobalt,
uranium from ore water fluoride, lead,
molybdenum, nickel,
radon, selenium,
sulfate, uranium
Petroleum and natural Disposal of brines High salinity of water, Boron, fluoride,
gas associated with high concentrations of hydrocarbons,
petroleum hydrogen sulfide, uranium
hydrocarbons methane or detectable
hydrocarbon odours in

AMD is probably the most severe environmental problem that occurs on mine sites. It
happens where mineral and coal deposits contain sulfide minerals, particularly pyrite
(FeS2). When waste rock containing sulfides is exposed to air, these minerals are
oxidized, releasing sulfuric acid. The process is accelerated by bacteria such as

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Thiobacillus ferrooxidans that obtain energy from the oxidation reaction for their growth.
The release of acid can cause the pH of surface water and groundwater to become very
low (as low as 2). Under these very acidic conditions, metal concentrations in water can
become very high due to the dissolution of elements from waste rock. Acidic water at
mine sites often kills vegetation, and may cause fish deaths in rivers. Apart from low pH,
visual indicators of AMD at mine sites include the following:
* Large areas where vegetation has died due to acidic runoff and shallow acidic
* The presence of abundant yellow or white salt crusts on waste rock and at the surface of
the soil. The crusts comprise alum-like sulfate minerals containing variable amounts of
sodium, potassium, iron and aluminium, such as the mineral jarosite. They are often very
soluble in water, releasing acid and precipitating ferric hydroxides;
* Surface water bodies on the mine sites often appear to have a milky blue-white cloudy
appearance due to the presence of flocs of aluminium hydroxide. If the water is extremely
acidic (< pH 3), it may appear to be crystal clear due to the precipitation of the flocs.

Of the chemicals used to process ores, cyanide may be the most problematic due to its
toxicity and the complexity of its chemical behaviour in groundwater. Cyanide degrades
rapidly into nontoxic chemical compounds when exposed to air and sunlight, but in
groundwater it may persist for long periods with little or no degradation. Cyanide
(usually in the form of potassium or sodium cyanide) is used to extract gold from its ore,
but in the subsurface it can react with minerals in soil and rock to form a wide range of
metal cyanide complexes, many of which are very toxic.

Abandoned pits and mine shafts are commonly used for water supply after mine closure.
Depending on the type of mining activity, water from these sources could pose a risk to
human health from high dissolved metal or cyanide concentrations.

Environmental and ecological effects of acid mine drainage-

* Acidity and metal toxicity: The high acidity of acid mine drainage and the high
amounts of dissolved heavy metals (such as copper and zinc) generally make acid mine
drainage extremely toxic to most organisms. Many streams derived from acid mine
drainage are largely devoid of life for a long way downstream.
* Sedimentation: Drainage water from acid mine drainage is initially clear but turns a
vivid orange colour as it becomes neutralised because of the precipitation of iron oxides
and hydroxides. This precipitate, often called ochre, is very fine and smothers the river
bed with a very fine silt. Thus, small animals that used to feed on the bottom of the
stream or ocean (benthic organisms) can no longer feed and so are depleted. Because
these animals are at the bottom of the aquatic food chain, this has impacts higher up the
food chain into fish.
* Effects on marine ecosystem: Acid mine drainage will be neutralised by the sea,
unless it is already neutralised. The ochre (orange precipitate) may be formed in the sea
as the stream enters the sea, or the ochre is formed in the stream and washed in to the sea
by the stream. There is potential for acid mine drainage to influence the food chain in the
near vicinity, resulting in possible negative effects on the whale shark and other marine

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Assessing the impact - When assessing the impact of industrial discharges on receiving
waters, the most critical characteristics are:
* The types of chemicals discharged — this depends on the type of industries and
processes used;
* The amount and concentration of chemicals in the effluent — these vary over time
depending on the operation mode of both manufacturing and wastewater treatment
processes employed (e.g. hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal variations).

Solid wastes and/or gaseous emission generated from industrial sources also contribute to
the amount and concentration of chemicals in the effluent if they are treated with water or
they have any contact with water.

AMD abatement Methods - The formation and treatment of acid mine drainage is the
biggest environmental problems relating to mining and processing activities in the
worldwide. Various methods are used for the sulphates and heavy metals removal from
acid mine drainage in the world. There are two approaches to controlling Acid Mine
Drainage. The first is to reduce or eliminate the source of the AMD. One method for
source elimination seeks to prevent oxidation by replacing the air within the mine with
groundwater. This air-with-water replacement is brought about by sealing any mine
openings with an impermeable grouting material. One such material under investigation
is flue gas desulferization (FGD) material, a by-product from coal-fired power plants.

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This material is composed of primarily calcium sulfate (gypsum). Another source

elimination strategy is to fill the mine with a solid (e.g., FGD or a clay slurry) in order to
eliminate the oxidation reaction.

The second primary method for mitigating Acid Mine Drainage involves treating the
AMD itself in order to remove the negative impact to the watershed. Chemical,
biological, or physical treatments may be used in AMD abatement. Chemical treatments
primarily seek to neutralize the acid through the addition of an alkali (e.g., soda ash) with
a subsequent sedimentation basin in order to retain metal precipitates after the pH
adjustment. Biological treatments use constructed wetlands, as one example, for natural
attenuation of biological nutrient additions in order to accelerate indigenous activity.
Physical treatment seeks to alleviate the impact through re-routing of streams to
circumvent possible problematic geological formations.

In environments where groundwater has been contaminated by waste water and acid mine
drainage, microbial sulfate reduction can be exploited in subsurface permeable reactive
barriers. A permeable reactive barrier is a passive, in-situ technique: groundwater
treatment proceeds within the aquifer and long-term maintenance of the installation is
unnecessary. This method consists of installing an appropriate reactive material into the
aquifer, so that contaminated water flows through the material (see figure below). The
reactive material induces chemical reactions that remove the contaminants from the water
or otherwise cause a change that decreases the toxicity of the contaminated water. For the
treatment of water contaminated with acid mine drainage, a number of studies have
shown the effectiveness of this method.

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Underground Mine Sealing - Mine sealing can minimize the AMD pollution associated
with abandoned underground mines. The primary factor affecting the selection, design
and construction of underground mine seals is the anticipated hydraulic pressure that the
seal will have to withstand when sealing is completed.

Conclusion - Of the huge amount of money spent on acid mine drainage each year, the
major portion is spent on treatment. But treatment is not the best solution to most acid
mine drainage problems. Treatment has the disadvantage of being necessary for as long
as the acid discharge continues and thus requires manpower, surface facilities, and sludge
disposal areas indefinitely.

Since acid drainage results from the oxidation of pyrite associated with coal and
overburden strata, limiting the rate of pyrite oxidation would reduce the amount of acid
formed. T. ferrooxidans normally catalyzes the pyrite oxidation and accelerated the initial
acidification of freshly exposed coal and overburden. Inhibiting bacterial activity through
the application of bactericides, therefore, would limit the rate of acid production and, in
combination with proper reclamation, would reduce substantially the total amount of acid

* Morin, K.A., Environmental Geochemistry of Minesite Drainage; Appendix D, Minewall
Methods, January 1996.
* De Vries, Nadine H.C., Process for Treating Iron-Containing Sulfi de Rocks and Ores, U.S.
Patent No. 5,587,001.
* Eger, P. and A. Antonson, Use of Microencapsulation to Prevent Acid Rock Drainage, report to
MSE Technology Applications, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. Paul, MN, pg.
7-9, September 30, 2002.
* Marshall, G.P., J.S. Thompson, and R.E. Jenkins, “New Technology for the Prevention of Acid
Rock Drainage, Proceedings of the Randol Gold and Silver Forum, p. 203, 1998.
* Metals Treatment Technologies, LLC (MT2), Golden Sunlight Mine Acid Rock Drainage (ARD)
Highwall Demonstration, at, May 10, 2002.
CONGRESS (16-19 January 2008), Kolkata, India, (MGMI), Vol-II, pp:297 – 310.
* Jeffrey G. Skousen, Alan Sexstone and Paul F. Ziemkiewicz, ACID MINE DRAINAGE
Author’s Bio-data:
Partha Das Sharma is Graduate (B.Tech – Hons.) in Mining Engineering from IIT, Kharagpur,
India (1979) and was associated with number of mining and explosives organizations, namely
MOIL, BALCO, Century Cement, Anil Chemicals, VBC Industries, Mah. Explosives etc., before
joining the present organization, Solar Group of Explosives Industries at Nagpur (India), few
years ago.

Author has presented number of technical papers in many of the seminars and journals on varied
topics like Overburden side casting by blasting, Blast induced Ground Vibration and its control,
Tunnel blasting, Drilling & blasting in metalliferous underground mines, Controlled blasting

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techniques, Development of Non-primary explosive detonators (NPED), Blasting in hot strata

condition, Signature hole blast analysis with Electronic detonator etc.

Currently, author has following useful blogs on Web:


Author can be contacted at E-mail:,,

Disclaimer: Views expressed in the article are solely of the author’s own and do not necessarily
belong to any of the Company.

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