Monday, August 17, 2015

2015 SMA GeoVenture

Musings from the NERD Herd 
Saturday August 15th 2015
Contribution: Pam Schwann, Executive Director, SMA

Today we finally got a chance to meet the 19 educators who traded in a week of their summer for a unique professional development opportunity. Our first 1/2 day together was a chance for everyone to meet the people they are going to be traveling over 5000 km in the next 6 days with by plane, bus, foot and underground Toyota "person" carrier. Participants received an arm and bag full of free, curriculum-correlated resources (including Potash Kit, Saskatchewan rock kit, hand lenses, posters to decorate their class with and USB loaded with lesson plans and presentations) as well as  the highly coveted Canadian hard hats donated by MSA Canada. 
The afternoon was a combination of hands on activities and presentations, including an overview of the Saskatchewan mining sector, testing the keen observation skills in identifying the properties of various rocks and mineral samples, and piloting a lesson plan that removes heavy metals from raffinate - developed by 2013 SMA GeoVenture alumni Amy Lafontaine from Kenaston. 

In advance of our much-anticipated trip to Cameco's Rabbit Lake Uranium mine tomorrow,  James Hatley, Cameco, joined us later in the afternoon to give us a primer on the evolution of  mining unconformity-related uranium deposits in the Athabasca Basin of Saskatchewan.  It was a fun first day that was topped off with members of the Saskatchewan mining sector coming out for a meet'n “Drill’n Grill BBQ”. 

There are 23 of us on this years’ trip – many that Kate already knows from the many workshops she has been doing in the province or that are involved in developing/piloting the new Earth Science 30 class.  When asked why they would take a week f their summer off to go on this program, there was a proud chorus of "We are NERDS" - definately looking forward to spending the next week with this group.

Day 2: Sunday August 16th, 2015: URANIUM-
Cameco Rabbit Lake/Eagle Point Uranium Mine-
Contribution by Patrick Kossman

“Down in the mine it's dark and it's damp
Your legs will be bent and your buttocks will cramp…”

Corky and the Juice Pigs –Miners

Rabbit Lake uranium mine, on the shore of Collins Bay, has been in operation for 40 years. Today we got to go down into the black depths to see how the men and women toil to bring the ore to the surface. Step one was donning our PPE (personal protective equipment). Outfitted with disposable coveralls, steel toed boots, hard hats, gloves, and goggles we were quite the attractive group. This safety gear will stay here at the mine so we don’t end up carrying radioactive material home. We then signed out our M20 rescue breathers and boarded vehicles to get into the mine.

The Eagle Point portion of the mine is interesting as it is a ramp mine, meaning we would just be driving down an 8% incline that spiralled into the mine. We stopped at 100 m in depth to look at a display that explained how mining started here at Rabbit lake. Underground mining started here in 1992 after the open pit was exhausted in 1988. It was at this stage that we got to “see” what darkness really looked like. Once all lights were out it was just as dark as you’d expect it to be 100 m below the surface of the Earth. 

Continuing our trek down below I was surprised how wet the mine was. Water ran constantly down the ramp. We were told that 7000 cubic meters is removed from the mine each day. That’s six Olympic swimming pools of water daily being removed to ensure mining. At the lower spots on the ramp the water pooled and was a little disturbing to drive through. We stopped at 380 m to see how drilling was done. The mine uses a method called Longitudinal & Transverse Stoping to mine their ore. This means they drill into the ore, break it up through blasting and scoop it out via a tunnel below. People are not allowed to get too close to the ore due to radiation, so my quest for super powers continues.

What seemed like such tiny mining tunnels stretching over so many kilometers saw a lot of traffic. Our two jeeps kept meeting other jeeps shuttling workers around the mine, or the big equipment being used to dig or haul the ore. Right of way was given to whoever was most important or bigger. Bigger was chosen more often as it’s hard to judge importance in a dark mine.

Our last stop on the underground tour was one of the many Refuge Stations in the mine. These rooms are built to keep miners safe in case of an accident. The rooms are tunneled into the rock and sealed off from the mine by a lockable door. The rooms have everything 12 miners could need to keep them safe for 3 days underground while awaiting rescue. Despite the lack of a bed or a TV the room did look quite comfortable. 

Light was surprisingly bright after our hour underground. I can’t imagine what working the full 12 hour shift would be like.

Rabbit Lake Surface and Mill Tour
Contribution by Karen Macdonald

The surface tour of the Uranium mine was fascinating as we toured through each step of the milling process and viewed several tailings ponds and reclamation sites.  As one might expect, the tailing ponds are inherently dangerous to wildlife, which is why, when we were viewing them, we were periodically startled by the air cannons used to frighten them away.  The original tailing pond is in the process of being reclaimed – evaporation of the water has been completed and the compact mineral tailing have been covered with an equally compact, relatively water resistant, soil/mineral layer.  It is then reseeded and eventually trees are planted. 

The original open pit uranium mine is the current tailings pond. Two scenic views: (For a tailings pond, it is remarkably picturesque)

The PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) required at a mine site is quite extensive, as one might expect.  As Uranium is radioactive, all of the PPE was provided and stayed on site:  hard hat, head lamp (only source of light in many areas of the mine), disposable coveralls (all five feet of me rocked the XL), gloves, ear plugs, and steel toed rubber boots.  
 After donning our PPE, we travelled through the chemistry lab at the mill where they effectively demoed several of their processes on a small scale.  My favourite was the flocking agent, which expediently filtered out the suspended solids, facilitating the separation of the various elements in the ore.

Milling uranium out of the ore is a fairly complex, multi-step process, utilizing large quantities of sulphuric acid and organic substances such as amines and kerosene. 

Below are several shots of the grinding and evaporation in the mill:


The black floaters are called Lilly pads and are used to keep heat in the tanks.

The end product, known commonly as yellow cake (U3O8) is shipped out in large barrels to Blind River for further processing.  This product has much lower radioactivity than the uranium ore going in to the mine and, as they demonstrated, it is safe to hug the $35,000 barrels on their way out.

Rabbit Lake Uranium Mine Surface Tour
Contribution by Ashley Pennington

On our tour of the Cameco Uranium mine one thing that stood out for me was how much they care about the environment.  As a mine you probably think that they just throw the leftovers away and don’t care what happens next, with this mine it is much different.  First thing they care about is Safety second is the environment.

To start with a tailings facility (pond) with all of the leftover metals and chemicals from pulling the uranium out in the mill to being able to put the water back into the lakes is pretty impressive.  They start with the tailings facility, which is designed so that any ground water flows around the tailings facility rather than through the tailings  As I said this is where all the waste water from the mill goes.  They allow it to sit and let it settle.  Water from the tailings is then pumped to the water treatment plant to remove remaining metals.  
Rabbit Lake Tailings facility - aerial view

After that it is sent to another lined pond where the water sits and any suspended particles settle.  This process is done a few times.  In the final stage it is pumped to a smaller pond and is tested before releasing it into the river systems.  While the water is settling they don’t want birds or animals drinking out of the ponds because it is not good for them.  So to help solve this problem they have little cannons that will go off every so often to scare any wildlife away.  It was crazy, as we came down to the last few ponds they had huge eagle statues placed around the ponds to help scare the birds away.  They also had wires that ran across the ponds to help keep the birds away.  In the summer they do hire summer students and the tour guide had said that sometimes their job is to chase the birds away. 

The workers come and do checks every three hours to make sure the PH levels are where they are supposed to be at.  Once the PH is at the right levels then it can be released into the river system.  Once the water is released back into the river systems the rivers and lakes surrounding the mine are checked on a regular basis to make sure the PH levels are correct and that they will not be harmful to the animals or people in the communities.

They also have the mine waste dump.  They would line the soil with the impermeable liner and then put any waste from the mine in it.   They had two separate dumps one was currently in use and the other was capped.  This means they put a thick cap of glacial till.  Once they have put the cap on the dump  then they have to reclaim it back to how the land was.  They are doing this by planting any plants that would be found in that ecosystem.  When we walked onto the capped off dump it looked like regular soil that had seeds coming through in some spots.

Here is the original Park Lake Tailings Facility that has been capped off
Cameco did a great job showing us the mine and the mill and making us feel welcomed as they showed us around!
 Here are the settling ponds 

The last stop for the treated water before it is released back into the river system.

Day 3: Monday August 17th, 2015 – POTASH
Contribution by Angela Byrnes

We started out our day with a great breakfast buffet at the Saskatoon Bessborough Hotel.  Next up was a Potash activity and then a presentation by Potash Corp.

Each person on the tour was given a Potash Kit developed by SMA.  This morning, we were shown how to use the kit as well as shown lesson plans that accompany the kit, at varying grade levels. Hands-on, easy to follow and tied to the curriculum, the Potash Kit is a teachers dream.  The activity simulates the process of Potash Solution Mining. Although the process is quite extensive, I'll break it down, we dissolved an ore sample containing table salt, potash, clay and iron oxide, filtered out what wouldn't dissolve and then recovered the potash from the solution. 

After the activity, Jenny and Tanner from Potash Corp presented information about Saskatchewan's Potash Mining Industry.  We learned about where Potash is located in SK and how it came to be there.  We learned about where the various Potash mines in Saskatchewan are located and the different processes used to mine the product.  Finally, we learned what the potash is used for. I won’t go into too much detail because as you continue in this blog, you will learn more about the processes because we are fortunate enough to visit both a solution mine and a conventional underground mine.

The information presented proved very useful as we made our way to the Mosiac Potash Mine in Belle Plaine and got to see one of the mining processes, Solution Mining, in action.

Millions of years ago, Saskatchewan was located around the equator where it was very hot.  Most of the province was covered with a salt water sea.  As the sun beat down on the sea, water began to evaporate and the salt (NaCl) and potash salt (KCl) began to crystalize at the bottom of the sea and built up in layers.  Over the next millions of years, the rest of the geology of Saskatchewan compacted the crystals to form the ore that is mined today.

Potash Solution Mining – Mosaic Belle Plaine Mine – Surface Tour
Contribution by Rod Figuero

After our guided tour through the solution mining plant we headed back into our bus and drove around the site. Our guide pointed out that there were 3 disposal wells on the property that injected salt water back into the ground. The tailing ponds are used to produce crystallization without the need of energy reducing energy cost. By using Mother Nature to cool the water there is a significant reduction in energy usage as well.  Something our guide was proud to share was that unlike conventional mining their solution mining was less destructive on the surface, meaning that only surface wells and pipes could be seen above, aside from the plant itself. The salt hill is also something that could be considered an eye sore but in the last few years there has been little to no additional material added to the hill, in fact it has actually reduced in size. If there was a sudden closure of the mine, a contingency plan to clean up the site has already been implemented with millions of dollars set aside for such an endeavour. 

Day 4: Tuesday August 18th, 2915
FOSSILS AND GEOLOGY: T-Rex Discovery Centre – Royal Saskatchewan Museum
T Rex Discovery Centre Paleontology Lab Eastend, SK
Contribution by Pat Telfer


Day #3 of the mining tour was different than the rest. While the other days were devoted to the recovery of minerals, this day was about the recovery of fossils. At the T. rex Discovery Centre, the fossils of many different species are on display. From the T. rex (obviously) to the triceratops (which are very common in the area) to the mosasaurs (which was made popular in the Jurassic World movie). 

The paleontologists at the center have done some amazing work. They have done some amazing research on the T. rex that was found in the area (nicknamed “Scotty”). At 75% complete, Scotty is the most complete T. rex that has been found in Canada and one of the most complete in the world. Also, because of the size, Scotty was believed to have been a female. Finally, they have been able to determine that Scotty was around 30 years when she died, which would make her one of the oldest T. rexes ever found. 

They also have many other fossils from other periods of time including the Brontothere. After the extinction of the dinosaurs, Saskatchewan was turned into a swampy, humid place – not unlike Florida today. The animals that roamed the land were also very similar with crocodiles, rodents, and tortoises found in many different places. 

Today, Saskatchewan is a very different place than it was millions of years ago. However, thanks to the work done by some amazing scientists, they are uncovering what the previous 65 million plus years looked like. In Eastend at the T. rex Discovery Centre, you can see how the present and past have been connected in a fun and interactive way.

Contribution by Melissa Sullivan 
On Tuesday, August 18th we were very lucky to tour the T. rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, SK.  The first part was a tour of the museum and looking at the different displays.  The second part was truly magical.  We were able to tour the paleontology lab at the centre.  It is run by Tim Tokoryk, a seasoned paleontogist who has worked in the field since the 1960’s.  He led the team that discovered the famed “Scotty the T. rex”.  He shared many of his paleontological triumphs as well as some of the hardships he and his team face, such as a small budget and very strict fossil collection protocols in Saskatchewan.  One such incident that he recalled was when they had discovered a small winged bird fossil, one that had never been found in this part of Saskatchewan before, and he was unable to collect it until he obtained the appropriate permits. He and his team bagged and reburied the small fossil only to find it later stolen when they went to retrieve it.  Tim admitted that those “once in a lifetime find” losses are the hardest to swallow.  His passion for paleontology in Saskatchewan and the truly miraculous finds that await him is palpable.  

The lab itself is filled to the brim with priceless artifacts.  Shelves upon shelves of fossils to be filed, and even some to be removed from their protective plaster of Paris safety coating.  He said that there was many years of work ahead with just what were in the lab currently, not including new discoveries or added fieldwork.  Scotty the T. rex’s actual bones are on the shelves, as well as an almost complete brontothere skeleton, and many prehistoric turtle shells.  The one he was the most excited about was a fantastic specimen of rocks within a rib cavity of an aquatic dinosaur.  He said the reasoning behind the rocks within the stomach of the dinosaur is still up for debate but he felt that it was probably to help the creature with buoyance.  

Tim was not one to hold back on his feelings on many subject matters, he gave an impassioned speech about the challenges he and his team face.  He works on a small budget and a few interns through the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.  And a big smile came across his face when he talked of getting to “play in the mud” in a couple of weeks with hopes of making another great discovery.  

While at the T-Rex Centre we also toured the exhibits, led by exceptionally knowledgeable local summer students, and then boarded the bus to head off to the “South Fork Mammoth Dig Site” – While there, two budding paleontologists (Ellen and Dan) from our group unearthed what was thought to be 30 Million year old bone fragments.

Grasslands National Park
Contribution by Jaimes Weber

We started this leg of our journey off at the Interpretive Center in Val Marie, SK. One of the first things that stand out when you walk in is the buffalo skin laid out on a bench to watch a video on the grasslands. The interpretive centre is loaded with information, everything on dinosaur bones, the KT boundary, (which is the extinction line that ends the Cretaceous period and starts the Tertiary period for all those non sciency people like me. The KT boundary is asteroid dust embedded in the rock marking out the time when the asteroid hit the earth. This is found all over the world... cool!) how glacier movement has shaped the prairies, and endangered species in the grasslands. (Apparently we have a few: antelope, sage grouse, long tailed weasel, long-billed curlew and the american badger).

We then watched a video that seemed a little dated (maybe 70s or 80s), this showed all the animals that are in the grasslands, as well as talked about hiking and weather. Much to my shock and horror, there are BLACK WIDOW SPIDERS that live in the grasslands. Gross. However, there are also burrowing owls... extraordinarily cute birds, so everything balances out.

The drive in was beautiful: tee-pees, flat valleys and rollings hills with a flock of sheep right outside to boot!

We ran out of time to do a proper hike, so we had to cut our 5km trek, to maybe 1/2 a km. Which wasn’t too bad because the bugs were pretty vicious; however, I would definitely want to go back and explore; I would just make sure to shellac a layer of bugspray on!

We got into the exposed side of a landscape, very badlands-like. We could see the different sedimentary layers. As well, we all were able to walk around and find barite and graphite rocks. We then had to rush outta there because we were very late for our BBQ date! 

DAY 5: Wednesday August 19th 2015 –COAL – Westmoreland Poplar River Mine
Contribution by Bruce Brander

Massive.  If there is a theme to differentiate this mine from our previous experiences, it would be scale.  The other mines have large, static facilities to process the mineral.  Processing is minimal here.  Gone are the multiple control rooms with walls covered in computer screens.  Strip mining is about vehicles.

The actual equipment that moves around doing all of the work to uncover what we must have dwarfs the large farm machinery that most of us are familiar with and photographs of it with people look like the photographer has used scale to trick the viewer.  He has not.  The terraforming that these monsters produce is equally intimidating with ranges of large steep hills rising out of the prairie that culminate in a steep and profound valley that is lined on the bottom with a 3 meter thick carpet of black.  Black that allows us to live in the luxury that we have become accustomed to.

That’s all that’s left of the forest that used to be here.  For three million years a lush cypress forest covered most of southern Saskatchewan stretching all the way down to Wyoming.  Fifty-six million years ago, that all changed.  The plates of the earth moved, raising our elevation and moving us out of the tropics.  The transition to grasslands started.  The forest died and was buried.  Now we need to dig it up.

First we have to find it.  As the forest was vast, that’s not difficult and this resource is sustainable for hundreds of years at current consumption rates.  Nevertheless, numerous test holes are made to map the coal seam so that a plan can be made to maximize all resources: the coal, equipment and miners.  Recently drones have been added that can produce highly detailed models of the surface.

There are three layers to be moved.  Earth movers start with the top soil.  The middle layer of till is the large one and that is where the imposing drag line shovel operates moving seventy tons with each bucket load.  Fuelled by a 25000 volt power line, multiple massive DC motors allow this Jules Vern inspired behemoth to move, rotate, stretch, grab and relocate enough dirt in a few minutes to fill 140 pickup trucks.  This is the prime terraformer and is as impressive as any of the Transformers that enthral our younger students.  When its work is done and that fifty-six million year old layer of black is exposed, it’s a simple matter for the last layer to be moved.  This is essentially having a front end loader scoop up the coal and drop it into a truck.  One hundred and 140 tonnes later, you’re done.  Easy peasy.  But again, the equipment is BIG.  Loading takes ten minutes.

The coal is out and it is time to get it to the customer.  There is only one and it is the power plant 20 kilometres south.  The truck takes its load, at speeds up to 80 kph, to a stockpile.  From there, the coal is pushed into a hopper and hauled up into a silo.  This is where the larger pieces are reduced to pieces no larger than six inches.  Westmoreland owns its own train.  It pulls its twenty cars into the silo where it slows to 1 kph while each car is filled with 100 tonnes of black ancient forest.  They don’t stop at night, nor in the winter, in fact winter is the mines most productive time, and six times a day this train replenishes the furnaces that allow us to live a lifestyle unparalleled in human history.

But they are not done.

Like your mother said, no job is done until the cleanup is done.  The valleys and hills that the drag line created are smoothed out.  The top soil is returned to its rightful place.  Sometimes wetlands are returned or added.  The icing on top is green.  The lands are sowed to hay which is cultivated by local farmers bringing the used section of the mine back to its former state, before it yielded what we use every minute of everyday.

Environmental Responsibilities/Reclamation
Contribution by Nicole Anderson

Poplar River coal mine uses the process of strip mining to obtain the coal ore. The strip mining process includes “stripping” away all of the upper layers of topsoil, dirt, sand and clay to expose the coal ore underneath. In order to keep up with federal and provincial environmental regulations, the Westmoreland Coal Company implements many sample testing of the surrounding environment and reclamation procedures to ensure environmental safety. Samples are collected from the surface water to check for turbidity (unsettled sediment), groundwater testing is done to check the levels of the different aquifers both with piezometers and in local wells, and finally air samples are gathered to test for the amount of particulate matter (dust particles). They also keep in close contact with local farmers to confirm the mine practices are not hindering the farming life.

Poplar River coal mine is also responsible for reclaiming all land that they have disturbed in the mining process. They reclaim the land by replacing the dirt, sand, clay and topsoil as close to the original topography. After which they have to re-seed with either native pasture grasses or cultivate for farm land. Any farm land that is restored must be deemed as productive before being put back onto the market. An example of this would be a piece of reclaimed farmland that was seeded for hay and farmers were open to come and cut and bail the hay. Westmoreland Industries has also partnered up with Ducks Unlimited to help restore any wetlands that have been disturbed, in order to guarantee a proper restoration. These wetlands can also include the “end cut” of the strip mine, which the mine repurposes as a wetland that can then be used by nearby ranchers for their livestock.

Westmoreland Coal Company was also faced with a problem of rare native plants in their mine site. To solve this problem the environmental team had to move the plants, including their soil, to a safe greenhouse to care for until they were able to return them to their original habitat.

Contributed by Richard Donnelly
Day 5 Poplar River Coal Mine

Further to what other teachers have written about the size and scope of this operation, the number and variety of careers available to students after high school is incredible.  They vary from the trades (working on 13 different types of equipment) to environmental and mining engineering (students need a degree from the U of S or the U of R) to equipment operations (only Grade 12 is needed) to office work (including Purchasing, Accounting, Payroll, office management, etc.)

We also learned that workers can start in one area and move to others.  Frequently, mining companies will pay for Journeyperson Certification, and many companies have strong connections to local post-secondary educational institutions to facilitate this. And as with pretty much every organization, mining companies love to promote from within, so workers just need to demonstrate reliability and competence, and they can move around to many different areas within the company, which keeps their career paths open, interesting and challenging.  And it goes without saying that all these jobs are very well paid! 

DAY 6: Thursday August 20, 2015 – PotashCorp Rocanville
Contribution by Alaaladeen Rabba and others.

Underground mines are one of the most amazing work places that you can work in. Underground mines are equipped with the latest technology such as wifi and robotic equipment. Workers in an underground mine are able to work safe and sound with the help of new technology and professional staff. Being underground is like being in a whole new world, with big machines and lots of workers. Workers underground are always friendly and look after each other like one big family.

At PotashCorp Rocanville, Safety Manager Calvin Petracek and Farrell Dodd provided us an operations overview before we went underground and answered questions about long term plans for the tailings decommissioning, safety and workforce opportunities.  Then we geared up with PPE (hard hat with lamps, gloves, eye and ear protection) and went to the cage to head over 1000 m underground via ”the cage” – a trip that only took a couple of minutes.  Once underground we split into 3 groups (led by Farrell, Dan and Joey) and climbed aboard the electric-powered man-carriers – complete with ROPS and seatbelts.  Along with the advantage of improving air quality underground (they don’t contributing to diesel particulate matter) the vehicles are exceptionally quiet - you can carry on a conversation and we could hear our guides describing what we were seeing.

While underground we also stopped at an underground refuge station where miners go if there is an emergency in the mine; a charging station for the electric man-carriers; a huge machine shop where one of the miners was being worked on, and at an active mining production area where we saw a continuous miner in action.

They stopped and started the miner when we were there so we could see how bits on the 4 rotor miner ground up the potash and how the ore was moving from the mine face to the conveyor belts in a continuous fashion. We also learned about safety at the face – how the machine is locked out to ensure it can’t be started when people are moving around it, and safety at the mine face as we gathered our potash samples.  

The rooms were big and the ceilings (or “backs”) seemed near as we travelled almost an hour underground to the farthest point of development- where we saw a spectacular sight – the breakthrough of the Scissors Creek shaft into the mine workings. Parts of the Galloway stage, where the miners worked to develop the shaft, were still visible as it was being dismantled. 

We were some of the lucky few who will ever get to see this site. The time spent travelling was definitely well spent, although it meant we weren’t able to tour the Rocanville mill. Good thing we had visited the Potash Interpretive Centre in Esterhazy the previous night (exceptional tour guides Richard Zurburg and John Nightingale) and had such a great overview there. 

Before we left, we had lunch (including gluten-free pizza) with our guides and management.  Mine Manager Vance Thom and others answered more questions- and then we were off – but first we drove to the new storage facility – a building that can be seen from outerspace. Then we were on the road back to Saskatoon.  What a great day.

Careers in Mining Contribution by Sejal Thakker and Jennifer Bieber

Mining in Saskatchewan offers a wide variety of rewarding careers. As a rapidly growing industry in The province, young people are being encouraged to explore careers available to them within the sector.

Mining offers one of the most diversified skill sets of any industry. Day to day operations of almost any type of mining requires a large and varied work force.  From entry level positions that allow valuable exploration opportunities to world class engineers and scientists, mining affords all Saskatchewan citizens an opportunity for well paying and rewarding careers.

Requirements for employment
Some entry level jobs are available to those with a complete Grade 12. Others require some experience in industrial work environments while others require high levels of post-secondary education.  There are also opportunities for enhanced training once employed by the individual mining company. In addition to the jobs directly in the mine, many opportunities in the areas of business and office administration are also available and provide integral support for mining operations to run effectively.

Additional considerations
Remote locations may offer living away allowance Shift work Recognition for previous Safety Training an asset Technical training in a specific trade Value community based practices

For a comprehensive list of opportunities available in Saskatchewan mining, please visit