Reclaiming Orphaned Mines

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Lush vegetation covers the scars of the abandoned Opémiska mine near Chapais

The word “byproduct” often comes up when talking about the environment. We all know what it means: something that comes as a result of an action or process that has occurred. In the mining world, the byproducts of raw material extraction are heavy chemical residues and tailing sites affecting the ecosystem of the area.

But another byproduct in the industry – one that is not discussed as much – is what happens to mines when the volatile raw-resource market dips below the profit margin and mining operators abandon their properties. This leads to orphaned mines, over 600 in Quebec alone.

Abandoned mining operations usually leave behind soil that is far too acidic to support life; a visible scar on the land. In dealing with this issue, Chapais Mayor Steve Gamache unveiled the results of groundbreaking reclamation work on the orphaned Opémiska copper mine, which was abandoned over 20 years ago.

The coordinated effort brought together Chapais Énergie, the Regional Conference of Elected Officers of James Bay, the Canadian Institute of Mines, FaunENord and the provincial government. Ungava MNA Luc Ferland spoke at the gathering where he thanked FaunENord, an environmental group energized by many young volunteers.

“There aren’t that many environmental organizations in the region and it is difficult to get things coordinated and done,” Ferland said. “The amazing team does great work not only for the area, but for Quebec as a whole.”

The provincial government has been working closely with researchers on the issue of orphaned mines. “What we have here today is truly groundbreaking environmental work,” said Minister of Natural Resources Martine Ouellet. “We want the north to be developed with respect to the environment, the local communities and economic benefits reaped by local and regional industries and Quebec as a whole.”

One person brought in to take on the challenge in the early 2000s was Lucien Bordeleau, whose Biolistik Bordeleau company pioneered a new method for bringing life back to the scarred land.

Bordeleau’s ambitious plan included the big three industries in the region: lumber, energy and mining. The plan involved embedding a biomass composed of ash into the soil of the orphaned mine allowing organisms to thrive and to reduce the acidity in the surrounding ground.



“The goal is to recreate the layers in the soil that is natural to region. For it to get this way naturally would take over 1000 years,” said Bordeleau. “But I don’t have a 1000 years so we’ve worked on speeding it up.”

Using ash as a base for the fertilization allows water to soak into the ground without washing away the biomass. This solves the problem of the other reclamation methods, which use a biomaterial and concrete to prevent runoff. The ash also provides an excellent environment for microbes and small organisms to thrive and cleanse the soil. The ash is a byproduct of the burning of wood chips by Chapais Énergie. This local eco-plant burns biomatter to generate renewable energy and already sells the ash as a fertilizer for local farmlands.

The program’s success was immediately visible when the delegation visited the site of the reclaimed mine, which is surrounded by lush vegetation. Bordeleau spoke of stories where his team encountered wolves and bears among the wildlife that has returned to the area.

“In the springtime, some Natives set up camp in the far corner to hunt the geese that have returned,” noted Bordeleau. Holes were dug to give the media a sense of how deep they had to penetrate in order to create an environment for sustainable growth.

Mining companies now must pay 70% of the costs of restoration over a span of 15 years. The new method of mining reclamation researched by Bordeleau cuts the cost of the current methods in use by 90% with the price per hectare going down from $2 million to $200,000.

The Quebec government is hoping that this new breakthrough will help free the province and even the country from the environmental damage caused by orphaned mines.

Many of the attendees were impressed by the work that Bordeleau and his team have accomplished at the Opémiska mine. But the main reason behind the initiative was evident when a group of Grade 6 students presented a birdhouse to Ouellet, who remarked that it is for future generations that lands scarred by mines must be reclaimed.

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