What if mine waste isn’t waste at all, but another potential source of riches for resource-based communities?
That was the enticing question raised by BacTech Mining Corporation upon its arrival in northern Manitoba.
The little-known Toronto-based company was built on the premise that it could process mine waste, known as tailings, for the benefit of both its bottom line and public safety.
BacTech’s expertise revolves around bioleaching, a process that employs bacteria to cleanse tailings of their toxic components.
At the same time, bioleaching exposes metals trapped within the tailings, permitting conventional recovery at a potentially significant profit.
At least as far back as 2010, BacTech had its sights set on northern Manitoba – and with good reason.
Everyone from Snow Lake knows what Toke Mountain is. The aptly named party spot is a mound of dried tailings spread across nearly 20,000 sq metres, reaching heights of 10 metres at some points.
These gold-laced tailings – some 250,000 tonnes of them – were left piled near the Nor Acme gold mine, later known as the New Britannia gold mine, when it closed in 1958.
While locals joke about people “toking” at the hill, Toke Mountain’s high arsenic content is no laughing matter.
Over a number of years, this arsenic became mobilized and leached into local water supplies and soil, according to BacTech. The tailings mound itself became property of the Manitoba government.
BacTech saw something in Toke Mountain that most people didn’t: immense economic opportunity. In early 2010, the company announced it had secured from the province the right to conduct a bioleach study on the mound.
Gold was in the midst of a remarkable multi-year ascension, and BacTech estimated that Toke Mountain contained some US$120 million worth of the glistening element.
So much gold remained trapped in the tailings because extraction methods of the 1950s were poor. Had Nor Acme mine operators had their druthers, all of that gold would have been processed and shipped out of Snow Lake decades ago.
BacTech’s study was big news for Snow Lake. If the results proved positive, the company planned to build a bioleaching plant that would employ 30 people – with the potential to expand beyond Toke Mountain and onto other tailings stockpiles across the region.
BacTech’s study results were impressive enough that in early 2011, the company confirmed plans to build a state-of-the-art bioleaching plant in Snow Lake.
The price tag was $18 million to $20 million; the anticipated opening date was late 2012.
“This is a major step forward for BacTech as we position ourselves as a leader in the field of tailings reclamation,” Ross Orr, president and CEO of BacTech, said at the time.
The Snow Lake plant would be the first of its kind in North America, and one of the few in the world.
As an added bonus, taxpayers would not pay a dime to purify Toke Mountain. BacTech would sign a contract with the Manitoba government to clean up the waste in exchange for the privilege of extracting the gold.
Despite BacTech’s optimism, the company failed to meet its 2012 opening date. By the fall of 2013, the company said it was making progress in finding financing, but, as Orr put it, “It’s a tough market for capital raising.”
BacTech later announced construction of the bioleaching plant would start in the first half of 2014. Again this deadline was missed.
Northern Manitobans were beginning to wonder whether this promising project would ever see the light of day. In September 2014, they began to get their answer.
Orr told The Reminder his company simply didn’t have the cash to proceed with the Snow Lake plant.
He also noted that Toke Mountain’s gold grade and iron content turned out to be prohibitively low, meaning a secondary supply of tailings would need to be fed into the plant to make it feasible.
Orr outlined other challenges for the project, including Snow Lake’s 400-km distance from the supply of limestone required for the bioleaching process.
At the time, Orr still seemed to hold out hope the Snow Lake plant could proceed at some point. On its website, however, BacTech would be definitive about that prospect: “There is an answer out there for this clean up, but it will not be bioleaching.”
The decision by BacTech – now known as BacTech Environmental Corporation – to pull out of Snow Lake shifted responsibility for Toke Mountain back to the Manitoba government.
The Reminder recently asked the province whether it has a plan to remediate the tailings and whether the tailings represent a health concern.
The Reminder also asked whether the province views remediation of the tailings as something it will do on its own or perhaps in partnership with a third party.
A provincial spokeswoman responded with a statement: “As with other abandoned mine sites, there are environmental issues that need to be addressed. While we can’t speak to any past action or inaction in prior years, we are currently exploring options that are both technically and economically viable to address the
Snow Lake tailings.”
Across northern Manitoba, many continue to believe mineral-laced tailings in Snow Lake, Flin Flon and beyond represent a profitable possibility for the region.
If tailings from the nine-year run of a gold mine in Snow Lake contain more than $100 million worth of gold, they observe, then what sort of riches sit beneath the surface of Flin Flon’s decades-old tailings pond?
In 2015, Rob Winton, then head of Hudbay’s Manitoba unit, told The Reminder the company had over the years received inquiries to review and discuss the treatment of mine waste.
He said available reprocessing technology was not commercially viable, however, adding the value of metals within Hudbay tailings “would be based on the costs to treat and the recoveries that any future process could achieve.”
The Ontario government, for one, believes in the prospects of such future processes.
According to the Sudbury Star, Ontario is spending $4 million to support research into the stabilization of, and recovery of metals from, mine waste.
Researchers estimate residual metal in the tailings of Sudbury, a nickel-mining mecca, is worth $7 billion, according to the Star.
With such massive figures at play, it may only be a matter of time before human ingenuity finds a way to feasibly detoxify and re-mine tailings – benefitting the environment and economies of mining communities.