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Impacts of amending bauxite residue sands with residue fines for the establishment of vegetation on residue disposal areas

Anderson, Jonathan (2009) Impacts of amending bauxite residue sands with residue fines for the establishment of vegetation on residue disposal areas. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Long term storage of bauxite residue materials requires a capping stratum which will limit erosion while stabilizing slopes, limit deep infiltration of water into storage piles, and be aesthetically acceptable to the surrounding community. A diverse native vegetative community capable of surviving seasonal drought, low plant available water and nutrient constraints has the best potential of satisfying most, if not all of these requirements. Current and past rehabilitation of residue disposal areas (RDAs) using species native to southwest Western Australia has exhibited varying success. Current practices at Alcoa World Alumina Australia’s (Alcoa) Western Australia refineries have bauxite residue fines (< 150 ìm) stored within impoundments, in which the outer embankments are constructed with bauxite residue sands (> 150 ìm). The residue sands are also used as the growth media in the capping stratum for vegetation establishment on the disposal sites. Despite the inherently hostile properties of residue sand (pH > 10, EC(1:5) > 4 dS m-1, and ESP > 50), reductions in alkalinity (pH), salinity (EC) and sodicity (ESP) are corrected, through freshwater leaching, to a greater extent than is possible with residue fines. Although leaching can reduce the hostile character of residue sand, additions of phosphogypsum are typically added to expedite the removal of Na and alkalinity, and inorganic fertilizers are incorporated to improve the nutrient status of the growth media. However, due to the inconsistencies in vegetation establishment, which are attributed to poor water retention, inherent nutrient deficiencies and rapid loss of nutrients within residue sands (because of high hydraulic conductivity), further amendments are required.

The aim of this study was to determine if amending the residue sand capping layer with residue fines would enhance its overall growth potential for vegetation establishment. Additions of fines to residue sands were predicted to increase water retention, add nutrients and increase the ability of the growth media to retain nutrients. Comparisons were made between the treated residue fines (seawater washed, carbonated, or unaltered) at a series of fines additions (1 - 20 % w/w) and a control(residue sand) amended with 2% (w/w) phosphogypsum and inorganic fertilizer.

Comparisons were to determine the differences in 1) water retention, 2) nutrient concentrations and nutrient retention, and 3) plant growth responses and plant biomass nutrient concentrations between the growth media treatments. Four experiments were set up to measure differences in these variables which included: a glasshouse study involving the growth of Acacia saligna; a germination and emergence study (A.saligna); a two year field study in Western Australia; and a glasshouse column leaching study.

Water retention increased with increasing percentage of residue fines addition. Plant available water (PAW) increased up to 110 %, with a 20 % increase in fines, representing an increase of 0.026 m3 PAW m-3 residue growth media, when compared to the residue sand only. This increase in PAW was attributed to changes in pore space distributions, due to the increasing fines contents altering the sandy texture to loamy sand texture class. However, initially much of this increase in PAW may not be realized, due to estimated temporary increases in osmotic potential associated with the high salt contents of residue sand and fines. Fines materials have much greater salt contents, and thus need to be leached to a greater extent than sands to remove the associated osmotic potential effects.

Essential plant nutrients (P, K, S, Ca, Mg, and B) were increased with additions of residue fines in the glasshouse studies, although many nutrients (Mg, Zn, Mn and B) were still marginal for sustainable plant growth and development. Seawater treated residue fines additions produced the greatest increases in growth media nutrients with substantial increases in soluble (> 7 mg L-1) and exchangeable (> 0.10 cmolc kg-1) Mg, being up to 400 % greater than all other treatments. Along with these necessary nutrients, concentrations of Na were also increased in all fines additions treatments. Added Na may offset the benefits of fines additions, at least in the short term, due to inhibitions of cation uptake from Na competition. However, in the column leaching study soluble and exchangeable Na was lost rapidly from the profile, due to Ca and K displacement of Na from exchange sites during leaching. Soluble Na was removed from the profile to < 5 % of initial concentrations, after only three pore volumes of leaching, and exchangeable Na was removed from charge sites to less than 25 % of the initial concentration. Fines additions did increase concentrations of Mg and K on exchange sites, thus reflecting increased nutrient retention capacity relative to that in residue sand only.

Plant growth responses and plant biomass nutrient concentrations were altered with the additions of residue fines to residue sands. The germination and emergence study demonstrated that the emergence of native seedlings was affected by additions of fines, due to the increased salinity and sodicity of the materials. Acacia saligna seedling emergence was inhibited by EC(1:5) > 2 dS m-1, which was highly correlated with a Na/Ca ratio of > 40, for all treatments, except the seawater fines additions. Seeds sown in seawater treatments emerged from growth media with EC(1:5) as high as 3.33 dS m-1 and appeared to be better correlated with Ca/Mg ratios than any other variable. Native vegetation growth responses showed mixed results in fines treated residues in the field. In the greenhouse study, plant growth tended to decrease with fines additions. Poor plant growth with increasing fines additions occurred despite the increased water retention and increased nutrients. This was attributed to the addition of Na associated with the residue fines, as increases in Na, EC and ESP in fines treatments all appear to have limited growth of Acacia saligna in the glasshouse over three months. Seawater fines additions had elevated Mg and B concentrations in plant biomass, and performed better than the carbonated or unaltered fines treatments, but still had reduced growth compared to the residue sand, which contained lower Na concentrations. Additional plant growth limitations may have occurred, due to possible plant nutrient deficiencies including: Mg, Zn, Mn and B and Na toxicity.

Incorporation of residue fines into residue sands did increase water retention, nutrient concentrations and the nutrient retention capacity, but did not enhance the overall growth potential for vegetation, at least in the short term. Reductions in germination and emergence of seedlings and reduced plant growth were attributed to increases in Na concentrations introduced from the fines. Seawater washed residue fines had lower ESP and greater concentrations of nutrients, thus reducing the negative impacts from the additional Na introduced, and showed the greatest promise as a fines amendment. As leaching occurs over the first few initial months of rehabilitation, it is expected that the majority of the Na will be removed, from a system with an addition of 5 to 10 % fines, and the positive benefits of the fines additions will than be realized. Findings also illustrate that delaying the planting of vegetation on RDAs, until adequate leaching has occurred to reduce the Na concentrations, will substantially increase vegetation emergence and establishment.

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Environmental Science
Supervisor: Bell, Richard
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