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Ask Slashdot: Can Tech Help Monitor or Mitigate a Mine-Flooded Ecosystem? 123

Posted by timothy
from the you'l-lbe-stone-dead-in-a-moment dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The dam break which flooded toxic mining sediments into Quesnel Lake, British Columbia will affect the food web of a very important fisheries ecosystem for many years to come. Here is the challenge; I am asking the people here to come up with suggestions for new and inventive ways to monitor and or help mitigate this horrendous ecological disaster. A large portion of a huge world famous food and sport fishery is at stake. The challenges ahead will take thinking outside the box and might not just be effectively done by conventional means." What would you do, and what kind of budget would it take?
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Ask Slashdot: Can Tech Help Monitor or Mitigate a Mine-Flooded Ecosystem?

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  • Ask Slashdot. Instead I'd go to forums where actual field ecologists -- the ones who actually go out and sample water, etc -- to see what they suggest.

    • Ask Slashdot. Instead I'd go to forums where actual field ecologists -- the ones who actually go out and sample water, etc -- to see what they suggest.

      Solutions don't have to come from field ecology. Here are two solutions:
      1. Don't allow earthen dammed tailing ponds to be built upstream from pristine ecosystems.
      2. Instead of mining gold, we should all switch to Bitcoins.

      • by gtall (79522)

        Gold is used throughout industry. Attempting to use Bitcoins in place of it would be a really neat trick.

        • by ArcadeMan (2766669) on Sunday August 10, 2014 @03:38PM (#47643419)

          I just bought Bitcoin-plated TOSLINK cables and the sound quality is fantastic!

          • by PopeRatzo (965947)

            That's a good one.

            I don't see rappers wearing Bitcoin bling, although the grilles would be very interesting.

        • by amorsen (7485)

          We have way more gold in storage than we have an industrial or jewelry-related use for. The primary use for gold is to sit in Fort Knox doing nothing at all. Gold-coloured plastic would do that job just as well.

          • by PopeRatzo (965947)

            Ti think that's wrong. Isn't there a lot more gold used in jewelry in South Asia than is sitting in Ft Knox? I thought I'd heard that.

            • by CaptnZilog (33073)

              There's more gold in my mothers wedding ring than there is in Ft Knox.
              Just ask the Germans what happened to their request for their gold stored in the US...

              • by Nutria (679911)

                Just ask the Germans what happened to their request for their gold stored in the US.

                Are there any "THE GOLD IS MISSING WERE DOOOOOOOOMED!!!" sites that are not scaremongers?

              • by PopeRatzo (965947)

                Just ask the Germans what happened to their request for their gold stored in the US...

                Well, it was kind of creepy to ask Ft Knox to store all those teeth.

          • Recent (several years) Congressional efforts to examine the contents of Fort Knox and other U.S. government gold reserves, and the gold of other countries that the US holds in trust, have been rebuffed. Germany has been refused access to its gold that is held by the U.S.

            There is good reason to believe that for all practical purposes, Fort Knox is empty. The gold has either been stolen by groups within the US government, or used by the government itself to pay off overdue debts.

            We are well and truly screwed.

        • Gold is used throughout industry. Attempting to use Bitcoins in place of it would be a really neat trick.

          Only 10% [wikipedia.org] of gold production goes to industry. The rest goes to either jewelry or investment. Much of the jewelry is sold in India, where it is used by families as a store of value. If India had a better banking system, the demand for gold might fall by quite a bit.

          • by jayrtfm (148260)

            Based on seeing the angst of my Indian friend when he was shopping for gold gifts for his family, there's a lot more cultural meaning than mere stored value.

      • Where will you get the gold used in all the chips in the computers to mine bitcoins?

        • Where will you get the gold used in all the chips in the computers to mine bitcoins?

          There is enough gold sitting in vaults to last for centuries at current industrial consumption rates. After that, we can get more by mining asteroids.

    • by rtb61 (674572)

      I would go to chemists and molecular engineers. If you consider the lake sufficiently toxic that you can not allow time to resolve all issues and draining the lack and digging out the toxic lake bed and disposing of it is too expensive, then review the toxic chemicals and see what stable harmless molecules they can be converted into by apply other less harmful chemicals in saturation that nature over time can bind up. Ecologists are just going to tell you don't do it, for good reason. Large earth moving co

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If only there were entire fields of research that dealt with precisely this sort of monitoring.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    There used to be an environmental company here in the US that held a patent on in-situ treatment of chromium-6 comtaminated groundwater. They injected a heavy molassus syrup. This provided sugar for bacteria to eat, with a wee bit of sulfer. The net result was the bacteria ate the sugar and combined the Cr-6+ with the sulfur to form a highly insoluable sulfide.

    This may work on several of the metals in the soup here.

  • by future assassin (639396) on Sunday August 10, 2014 @03:12PM (#47643281) Homepage

    throw the ones responsible into jail for a long ass time to make a nice example. You can't hide behind money and corporations. Take away enough of their profits to just keep them ging and keep the emplayees working.

    • But who do you throw in jail? The employees who are directly responsible for their actions, or their boss in his office who approved the work to be done, or the CEO at the top who did not care about the ecological danger?

      • But who do you throw in jail?

        Your list is not complete. Here are some more that can be added:
        1. Politicians that accepted donations from the company, and passed legislation allowing the tailing pond to be sited upstream from a pristine ecosystem.
        2. Regulators, inspectors, and bureaucrats that apparently didn't do their job.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        All of the above. Plus dissolve the company, maybe offering some of the better now un-employees jobs on the cleanup staff.

        That would send a message about fuckups of this level, ensure this particular place is no longer a potential issue, and hopefully keep plenty of the workers employed until cleanup winds down so they can find work elsewhere.

        • by labradore (26729)

          To go further down that road: All assets are immediately turned over to the government and used to fund cleanup and mitigation. The government becomes the most preferred creditor.

          • To go further down that road: All assets are immediately turned over to the government and used to fund cleanup and mitigation. The government becomes the most preferred creditor.

            So, the shareholders, eh? People whose 401k's include some of that stock, that sort of thing?

            • Shareholders have to accept the risk of adverse legal consequences. This is one reason why diversifying your holdings is important.

              Besides, this might get the big institutional shareholders' attention, so they vote for board members who'll keep an eye out for such things.

      • by Mashiki (184564)

        But who do you throw in jail? The employees who are directly responsible for their actions, or their boss in his office who approved the work to be done, or the CEO at the top who did not care about the ecological danger?

        Since there's an on-going investigation into it, and residents heard a loud explosion before hand, many people are thinking out there that this was the work of eco-terrorists. This wouldn't be the first time either, my sister lives in sour gas alley in Alberta. Back 10 years ago, there was a guy going around trying to blow up sour gas wells(H2S). For those that haven't ever worked in the oil industry, sour gas is nasty stuff. If it floods a low level area, you're usually dead before you know it hits you

      • from the company and gove that ingnored the warrning from the engineering company that built the project that the current setup wasn't future proof.

    • Re:I would (Score:5, Insightful)

      by bmo (77928) on Sunday August 10, 2014 @03:48PM (#47643455)

      throw the ones responsible into jail for a long ass time to make a nice example.

      While I applaud the sentiment behind this, the "ones responsible" will be some poor schmuck low on the totem pole sacrificed to the god Mammon. Probably a janitor somewhere that would be blamed for throwing away an "important memo" on "please don't do that" which didn't exist anyway.

      In an ideal world, emails would be pulled, phone records retrieved, evidence recorded, and those up top would be held responsible for this. And in a really ideal world, none of this would happen. But this isn't an ideal world and fines are "just the cost of doing business."

      Look at what Duke Energy got away with. Look at what they all get away with.

      >letting the corporation survive

      No. That won't fix anything. It has come to the point that corporate death penalties actually have to start happening to light a fire under the asses of employees that would see their livelihoods taken away by higher-ups in the corporation through mismanagement, along with boards seeing their corporate governance (and cash that goes with it) taken away, and stock holders wiped out. Only then will there be any motivation for good corporate governance.

      --
      BMO

      • TFA doesn't say what caused the dam break, sometimes it's actually nobody's fault, ie: "shit happens". However the cause should be thoroughly investigated by forensic engineers and if it was negligence, then jail the negligent, which in the eyes of law is normally the principal engineer who signed off on the construction, "following PHB orders" is not a valid excuse in the eyes of the law.
        • There's a sufficient amount of "shit happens" that isn't benign neglect, rather the pernicious pursuit of profits without examining consequences, and they're huge.

          Jail is forensic. This poster needs solutions. Are there filtration methodologies available? Ways of mitigating the pollutants? Something learned from tech fab by products that can help solve the problem? PHBs are now after the fact. Cool heads and geek examinations are what's needed. My advice: find a recovery methodology financed by the sale of

        • by russotto (537200) on Sunday August 10, 2014 @05:13PM (#47643803) Journal

          TFA doesn't say what caused the dam break, sometimes it's actually nobody's fault, ie: "shit happens".

          Given that the previous engineering firm bailed out a few years ago with a letter [knightpiesold.com] that stank of CYA, I'm going to guess it's not that this time.

        • There is evidence (Score:5, Informative)

          by future assassin (639396) on Sunday August 10, 2014 @05:36PM (#47643905) Homepage

          There is evidence that the company ignored warrning from the engineering company that built the projects and the pond had to be fortified or there would be issues in the future. The engineering company says they let the management and the gov know there will be issues if things didn't get fixed. No one listened so they bailed before this hit the fan and eventually it did.

    • NO mine wants a tailings dam to collapse. There are regular conferences on how to design the things and specialists who design them. NO CEO wants this to happen, because the cost reparations is horrendous, and contrary to what the comments have been like here, the bosses of these companies (well the ones I've know of) want to be good corporate citizens.
      Mining has risks, and incidents like this will ne analysed and fed back into the future design models, and like all things in life, will improve over time.

      • by Lumpy (12016)

        So the CEO will dump his fortunes into fixing this? not a chance in hell.

      • Hmm, well I want to win the lottery. Even though I never play the lottery, I expect that the odds of that happening are a good deal more favorable than of a mining company being a "good corporate citizen." The road to hell and all that.

      • by rtb61 (674572)

        B$. Psychopathic greed means getting as much in this quarter as possible, inflating the value of the company, inflating executive salaries to match and cashing in stock option while they are worth something and collecting a golden parachute when it all blows up. That is the modern norm, they don't give a crap about how many they bankrupt, how many lives are ruined, how much harm is caused or how many they kill. More money and power now, right now and screw the consequences and every one else.

        They have co

      • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

        No CEO wants a dam to collapse, they just don't give a shit if one does as long as they keep making money in the short term. Rather than paying to fix it they would prefer to just hope it doesn't happen this quarter before their bonus is calculated, and maybe spend a little money protecting themselves from being blamed or on a worthless insurance policy that will never pay out.

  • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Sunday August 10, 2014 @03:20PM (#47643323) Journal

    First: Do no (more) harm

    One of the lessons from the Exxon Valdez oil spill is that attempts to clean things up may make them far worse, while the ecology's toughness in the face of environmental changes is vastly underrated.

    For instance: They did a major removal of oil from part of a beach. In the process they stripped the bulk of the lifeforms off, leaving essentially sand - mineral dust. In an adjacent section that was missed, the orgnisms did a fine job of consuming the oil that had spilled. (It seems sea life has to deal with seeped oil quite a bit, from natural sources. Some stuff not only handles it, but considers it a valuable resource.). After a couple years the un-cleaned beach was flourishing (though perhaps not with the same mix of populations as before). A picture of the boundary is impressive: Cut like a knife.

    Granted disturbing mine tailings is a very different case. But similar rules apply: Will letting them settle to the bottom, where they can be processed over decades to geologic time, cause less harm than attempting to clean them up RIGHT NOW - which might keep them mixed into the water and produce a much larger, sustained, iinput of "toxic" minerals to the bulk of the waterway's biosphere?

    • Conversely, sudden nutrient imbalances are kind of a bad thing to an ecology a lot of the time. Deadzone's form from undersea oil spills becaue the anerobic organisms take over, eat all the oil, and kill off everything else. Then that windfall eventually runs out and they of course all die off.

    • The flaw with this analysis is the timeline. Yes, the short term impact on the cleaned beaches was pretty horrendous, but it remains to be seen how this plays out over time as the ecology recovers. It could well be that the cleaned areas actually had a closer return to pre-spill ecologies than the ignored beaches.

      What we have done is to create an interesting, long term experiment.

      'Always look on the bright side of life ....'

      • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Sunday August 10, 2014 @07:55PM (#47644485) Journal

        The flaw with this analysis is the timeline. Yes, the short term impact on the cleaned beaches was pretty horrendous, but it remains to be seen how this plays out over time as the ecology recovers

        Hear, hear. The "cleaned" beaches may come back closer to the original - after they've been repopulated by pioneer speecies and gone through the whole beach-equivalent of the succession to climax forest. The uncleaned beaches may get where they're going more quickly, but that may be somewhere other than where they started. And so on.

        Maybe, once the toxins have been cleaned up by lifeforms in one case, the soil rebuilt and recolonized by successive populations of organisms in the other, they'll come back to what they once were. (Assuming the area hasn't been reshaped by then.) Maybe they'll come back as something else - like the "flip-flop" island of recent history: Lobsters ate the snails and kept their population down. A hurricane wiped out the lobsters. Attempts to recolonize by importing lobsters failed. Turned out the snail population boomed once the lobsters were gone and it got to where a newly introduced lobster would, within minutes, pick up enough snail riders to weight it down and eat IT, so now the ecology was stable in a different mode. So in either case the beach ecology may converge to a different equilibrium.

        But there are sections of the Pacific Northwest where a natural phenomenon did something similar: Two glacers met along the front of the ice cap during the last ice age. When things finally melted they melted last, forming a dam holding back an ocean. When it finally melted through, the ocean poured through in that one spot. It scoured an area comparable to an eastern state down to bedrock, washing everything from topsoil to gravel to rocks to boulders off toward the Pacific. The area STILL is nearly as lifeless as the moon.

        So my bet is the unwashed beach will reach a robust and stable exology in historic time. But I wouldn't be surprised if, even with lots of sea life washed up by wave action, the washed beach takes geologic time to make a similar recovery.

  • Do nothing and monitor the situation for a few generations.
  • by Immerman (2627577) on Sunday August 10, 2014 @03:47PM (#47643451)

    It won't help for this disaster, but if you want to prevent it from happening again make sure all the CEOs and other management types who cut corners such that this failure could happen spend a healthy dose of time in prison. Ditto the environmental regulators who gave a passing grade to a high-risk situation. Maybe extract the clean-up costs from their personal assets as well - let's liquidate everything they own and garnish 75% of their income until all clean-up has been paid for or they die of old age. Because as long as the folks in charge can pocket their fat cost-cutting bonuses and then walk away unscathed from the consequences of their actions while a piece of paper (aka corporate charter) has its day in court this will just keep happening.

    As far as this disaster is concerned I've got nothing non-obvious to contribute. My condolences to everyone downstream.

    • As someone towards the beginning of the comments said, sometimes stuff happens. Maybe there was and maybe there wasn't corner cutting and/or poor engineering in this tragic situation. The take-away here for me is that we simply should not put these big mines in ecologically sensitive areas. Stuff will happen without regard to the best laid plans and intentions of mine developers. The Fraser river salmon may take a terrible hit from this pond breach. The proposed Pebble Mine is threatening the Bristol Bay ar
    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      The CEOs and anyone else in charge has already made sure that can never happen to them. They employ a variety of tricks to avoid being blamed for anything.

      For example, they might hire a consultancy firm to tell them if what they are doing is safe. The job of the consultancy firm is to tell the people paying them what they want to hear, and maybe make a few easy low-cost recommendations so that the company can show how hard it is trying. Their contract explicitly states that they don't stand by any of it, an

      • by Immerman (2627577)

        There's a legend that once upon a time the captain always went down with the ship, and there were a lot of reasons why that would be a very good thing - *somebody* has to carry final responsibility, and the only one who can reasonably do so is the person with final authority. It's up to them to stay on top of everything they should be aware of, and if they fail in their duty they pay the ultimate price. Similar theme with sepukku in Japan - the person ultimately responsible for failure pays the price.

        Seem

  • specifically, use reverse osmosis and other separation methods to get all the pollution out of the huge lake... and drop it in the living rooms of the board of directors of the company that caused the spill.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    According to Wikipedia the waste pond contained about 18,000 tons of copper and a few hundred tons of other elements. Typically, sulphide ore deposits will include cadmium, lead, and arsenic, all pretty toxic.

    We take copper pretty much for granted, but it's compounds are actually quite toxic. With the large amounts present I would put measurement of copper contamination pretty high on the agenda, and look to setup an independent lab to measure copper compounds in the water entering the lake, along with cadm

    • by mark-t (151149)
      Uhmm.... I'm not sure what you're reading, possibly results of samplings taken in 2013, but I've been trying staying on top of this news myself, being a resident of BC, and to the best of my knowledge, nobody still has any idea what, exactly, was in the tailings pond yet. Incompetence writ large.
  • Determine the boundary of the contaminated-sediment area. Pump cement in there, to make toxic concrete. Once it sets up, pull it out.
  • Can Tech Help Monitor or Mitigate a Mine-Flooded Ecosystem?

    Yes, of course it can.

    How? Oh, no idea. I'm just sure it can.

  • First, make the company clean up their mess, with a suitable plan signed off by some ecologists. Make sure the clean-up will 1) be better than doing nothing and 2) accomplish its objective.

    Whatever money you want to spend to clean up a disaster like this would be better spent finding other potential disasters and making sure they don't happen, rather than donating your money to save a greedy corporation from their responsibility and encouraging other companies to save money by having suckers clean up their messes.

  • In what form are they? In solution? That's a tough problem to solve. As particulates, it may be possible to separate much of them out.

    Dam Polley Lake and divert its outflow through centrifugal separators*. That will concentrate the particulates, which can be sent to temporary holding ponds and further separation.

    *I wonder if the availale head from Polley Lake can be made to drive some sort of cyclonic seperator without the use of other power input.

  • by NoKaOi (1415755) on Sunday August 10, 2014 @07:37PM (#47644419)

    Can Tech Help Monitor or Mitigate a Mine-Flooded Ecosystem?

    Yes. The first tech to start out with is a motorboat, a Van Dorn bottle, and a sediment sampler. Then pick out a lab or two that are capable of testing for the things that might be in the water, particularly nickel, arsenic, lead, copper, TSS, phosphorus, and nitrogen. Take your water samples at several locations and depths using said motorboat with said Van Dorn bottle and sediment sampler.

    Okay, okay, I was kinda being a smartass. I get it, you have 5 days to complete your detailed action plan, and in a desperate Hail Mary you're hoping somebody here will reply with, "I was just about to launch my Kickstarter project for my solar powered 3-D printed heavy-metal-cleaning-superdrone running Linux on Raspberry Pi! I'll UPS my prototype to you tomorrow!" But that's not gonna happen. I'm sure you've already hired consultants to write things like, "if levels of A are above B mcg/L then C will be done over D timespan, until levels of A drop below B, at which point E will be done." D and E may have to be investigated if you don't know what they are yet. That's about as good as you're gonna get at this point.

    Don't forget that your spill probably didn't just contaminate the lake with the metals you dumped in it, but also normal things (i.e. nutrients) that tons of sediment contain that could have various biological effects such as algal blooms. In addition to supplying them with clean water, I hope your mining company also reimburses the residents of the area for the economic (both short term and long term) impact this incident is having on them. You've been reaping the benefit of the rewards, now it's time to pay the price of the risk.

  • Quesnel Lake is 100 square miles, and the second deepest lake in Canada. If something has to be done that involves the whole volume of the lake or all of the lake floor, it's a very big project no matter how clever the solution.
  • by Okian Warrior (537106) on Sunday August 10, 2014 @08:26PM (#47644589) Homepage Journal

    First suggestion:

    There's been a lot of interest in using Zeolites to absorb heavy metal contamination in water. One specific experiment involved dragging a bag of zeolites through ocean water, the zeolites absorbed enough Thorium to be industrially useful as an ore (if there were a demand for Thorium, which there isn't).

    I've found papers that indicate that Zeolites will absorb copper and lead, two of the contaminants listed for the Mount Polley disaster; chances are likely that zeolites would absorb the other contaminants as well.

    Here's two papers to get you started:

    http://www.yourncdinfo.com/cli... [yourncdinfo.com]

    http://cnu.edu/arc/documents/p... [cnu.edu]

    Second suggestion:

    There's been some success in removing non-volatile organic pollutants from soil using steam injection. Essentially, sink a pipe into the soil, inject steam, cover the area with a tarp, and collect the steam/water as it percolates up through the soil. This method can be used to extract non-volatile organic components including tetra-ethyl-lead. (I found that last bit surprising, but this was directly confirmed to me by one of the scientists involved.)

    Depending on the chemical nature of the contaminants (ie - solubility, polar/non-polar character &c) this might prove useful in decontaminating some of the mud slurry.

    Here's a paper to get you started:

    http://nepis.epa.gov/Adobe/PDF... [epa.gov]

    • Third suggestion:

      Fungi can be used to remove heavy metal contaminants in flowing water. Place a bunch of fungi mycelium in sandbags in the water stream and the fungi will filter out the contaminants as the water flows through. Come back later, remove the bags and replace with a fresh batch.

      Contact Paul Stamets' group over at Fingi Perfecti and see what their experts have to say. They might even have a product you could buy for the purpose.

      Here's a paper and some contact info to get you started:

      http://www.sc [sciencedirect.com]

    • And yet another suggestion - somewhat natural chelating agents, specifically Itaconix DSP 2K polymers (http://www.itaconix.com/products.html) Admitadly, you'd need several boatloads, but the general concept should be to latch on to the contaminants chemically, and then weigh the complex down to the point that they quickly precipitate out. Covering the sediment with inert material would probably be a good idea also.
  • Make it a game. Could you set up a virtual environment? Perhaps you can find an area where people explore the border of a habitat in the condition it "should be in" in the game. When they see an area with a problem, they can run chemical test which actually runs an actual chemicals test in the affected area. Perhaps since actual fish are affected, you can make it a virtual fishing game. Tough to say since I don't really know what all is involved in the actual clean up process.
  • There are a host of plants that will absorb heavy metal contamination, however the problem is that using them in this way is prevent by patents.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P... [wikipedia.org]
    http://www.google.co.uk/patent... [google.co.uk]

  • I work in a kitchen, where this sort of behavior would result in a forced closure and heavy fines. If I throw a few hundred pounds of chicken in an oven, I clean the surface I prepped them on. I do NOT wait until a disaster whips the stuff around and covers the whole kitchen with salmonella. While the contaminants are localized, they're easy to clean up. When disaster spreads them around, cleanup becomes nearly impossible.

    In the mining context, we can't be leaving giant holes covered with contaminants just

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