The Geochemical and Mineralogical Controls on the Environmental Mobility of Rare Earth Elements From Tailings, Nechalacho Deposit, Northwest Territories
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Increased demand for rare earth elements (REEs) for applications in modern technologies has led to an increase in REE exploration. Several deposits are expected to begin mining within a decade, but few studies have examined the possible environmental effects created by these mines. Metal toxicity is thought to be greater in aqueous environments when metals occur as free ions rather than complexes, and the speciation can also impact the treatment technologies utilized to reduce metal concentrations. This research investigates the mineralogical source of REEs and the mechanism of REE mobility in low-temperature waters that have interacted with pilot plant tailings from the Nechalacho deposit, Northwest Territories. The Nechalacho deposit is owned by Avalon Rare Metals Inc. and located approximately 100 km east of Yellowknife. The deposit is hosted within a hydrothermally altered layered nepheline-sodalite syenite in the peralkaline Blatchford Lake complex. The main REE ore minerals are zircon, fergusonite, allanite, monazite, bastnäsite, and synchisite-parasite. Characterization of the tailings using mineral liberation analyzer (MLA) show that the ore minerals are fine grained and well liberated. Bastnäsite and synchisite-parasite are the only potentially soluble ore minerals at low temperature and near-neutral pH. Shake flask experiments were designed to simulate the interaction of tailings with three different leach waters to identify soluble phases and mobile elements. Decanted solutions from the shake flasks were filtered to 0.45µm and 0.01µm. Speciation modelling of the 0.01µm filtrate suggests that carbonate ligands will form the dominant complexes with the REEs, and <2% occur as free metal ions. Higher proportions of LREEs (1-6%) occur as free metal ions than HREEs (<1%) and LREEs occur in higher concentrations (2 to 8 times greater) than the HREE. REEs were found in the colloidal fraction ([REEcolloid] = [REE0.45µm] – [REE0.01µm]). Ionic strength is the dominant control on distribution of REEs between colloidal and dissolved fraction. Colloids captured on filters from ultrafiltration analyzed using scanning electron microscopy and synchrotron microanalysis show REEs are hosted in colloidal rare earth minerals (e.g. zircon) and also show colloidal humic acid, Fe-oxides and Mn-oxides. Speciation modeling shows that REE sorption to these phases is probable.