Salty Matters

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Brine evolution and origins of potash - primary or secondary. Ancient potash ores: Part 3 of 3

John Warren - Monday, December 31, 2018

Introduction

In the previous two articles in this series on potash exploitation, we looked at the production of either MOP or SOP from anthropogenic brine pans in modern saline lake settings. Crystals of interest formed in solar evaporation pans and came out of solution as: 1) Rafts at the air-brine interface, 2) Bottom nucleates or, 3) Syndepositional cements precipitated within a few centimetres of the depositional surface. In most cases, periods of more intense precipitation tended to occur during times of brine cooling, either diurnally or seasonally (sylvite, carnallite and halite are prograde salts). All anthropogenic saline pan deposits examples can be considered as primary precipitates with chemistries tied to surface or very nearsurface brine chemistry.

In contrast, this article discusses ancient potash deposits where the chemistries and ore textures are responding to ongoing alteration processes in the diagenetic realm. Unlike the modern brine pans where brines chemistries and harvested mineralogies are controllable, at least in part, these ancient deposits show ore purities and distributions related to ongoing natural-process overprints.



Table 1 lists some modern and ancient potash deposits and prospects by dividing them into Neogene and Pre-Neogene deposits (listing is extracted and compiled from SaltWork® database Version 1.7). The Neogene deposits are associated with a time of MgSO4-enriched seawaters while a majority of the Pre-Neogene deposits straddle times of MgSO4 enrichment and depletion in the ocean waters.

Incongruent dissolution in burial

Many primary evaporite salts dissolve congruently in the diagenetic realm; i.e., the composition of the solid and the dissolved solute stoichiometrically match, and the dissolving salt goes entirely into solution (Figure 1a). This situation describes the typical subsurface dissolution of anhydrous evaporite salts such as halite or sylvite. However, some evaporite salts, typically hydrated salts, such as gypsum or carnallite, dissolve incongruently in the diagenetic realm, whereby the composition of the solute in solution does not match that of the solid (Figure 1b). This solubilisation or mineralogical alteration is defined by the transformation of the "primary solid" into a secondary solid phase, typically an anhydrous salt, and the loss of water formerly held in the lattice structure. The resulting solution generally carries ions away in solution.


More than a century ago, van't Hoff (1912) suggested that much subsurface sylvite is the result of incongruent solution of carnallite yielding sylvite and a Mg-rich solution. According to Braitsch (1971, p. 120), the incongruent alteration (dissolution) of carnallite is perhaps the most crucial process in the alteration of subsurface potash salts and the formation of diagenetic (secondary) sylvite.

Widespread burial-driven incongruent evaporite reactions in the diagenetic realm include the burial transition of gypsum to anhydrite (reaction 1)

CaSO4.2H2O --> CaSO4 + 2 H2O ... (1)

and the in-situ conversion of carnallite to sylvite via the loss of magnesium chloride in solution (reaction 2)

KMgCl3.6H2O --> KCl + Mg++ + 2Cl- + 6H2O ...(2)

Typically, a new solid mineral remains, and the related complex solubility equilibrium creates a saline pore water that may, in turn, drive further alteration or dissolution as it leaves the reaction site (Warren, Chapters 2 and 8). Specifically for ancient potash, reaction 2 generates magnesium and chloride in solution and has been used to explain why diagenetic bischofite and dolomite can be found in proximity to newly formed subsurface sylvite. Bischofite is a highly soluble salt and so is metastable in many subsurface settings where incongruent dissolution is deemed to have occurred, including bischofite thermal pool deposits in the Dallol sump in the Danakhil of Ethiopia (Salty Matters, May 1, 2015). In many hydrologically active systems, solid-state bischofite is flushed by ongoing brine crossflow and so help drive the formation of various burial dolomites. Only at high concentrations of MgCl2 can carnallite dissolve without decomposition.

Laboratory determinations

In the lab, the decomposition of carnallite in an undersaturated aqueous solution is a well-documented example of incongruent dissolution (Emons and Voigt, 1981; Xia et al., 1993; Hong et al., 1994; Liu et al., 2007; Cheng et al., 2015, 2016). When undersaturated water comes into contact with carnallite, the rhombic carnallite crystals dissolve and, because of the common ion effect, small cubic KCl crystals form in the vicinity of the dissolving carnallite. As time passes, the KCl crystals grow into larger sparry subhedral forms and the carnallite disappears.

Carnallite’s crystal structure is built of Mg(H2O)6 octahedra, with the K+ ions are situated in the holes of chloride ion packing meshworks, with a structural configuration similar to perovskite lattice types (Voigt, 2015). Potassium in the carnallite lattice can be substituted by other large single-valence ions like NH4+, Rb+, Cs+ or Li(H2O)+, (H3O)+ and Cl- by Br- and I-. These substitutions change the lattice symmetry from orthorhombic in the original carnallite to monoclinic.

When interpreting the genesis of ancient potash deposits and solutions, the elemental segregation in the lattice means trace element contents of bromide, rubidium and caesium in primary carnallite versus sylvite daughter crystals from incongruent dissolution can provide valuable information. For example, in a study by Wardlaw, (1968), a trace element model was developed for sylvite derived from carnallite that gave for Br and Rb concentration ranges of 0.10–0.90 mg/g and 0.01–0.18 mg/g, respectively. In a later study of sylvite derived by fresh-water leaching of magnesium chloride under isothermal conditions at 25 °C. Cheng et al. (2016), defined a model whereby primary sylvites precipitated from MgSO4-deficient sea water, gave Br and Rb concentration ranges of 2.89–3.54 mg/g and 0.017–0.02 mg/g, respectively (no evaporation occurred at saturation with KCl). In general, they concluded sylvite derived incongruently from carnallite would contain less Br and more Rb than primary sylvite (Figure 2; Cheng et al., 2016).


Subsurface examples

The burial-driven mechanism widely cited to explain the incongruent formation of sylvite from carnallite is illustrated in Figure 3 (Koehler et al., 1990). Carnallite precipitating from evaporating seawater at time 1 forms from a solution at 30°C and atmospheric (1 bar) pressure, and so plots as point A, which lies within the carnallite stability field (that is, it sits above the dashed light brown line). With subsequent burial, the pressure increases so that the line defining carnallite-sylvite boundary (solid dark brown line) moves to higher values of K. By time 2, when the pressure is at 1 Kbar (corresponds to a lithostatic load equivalent to 2-3 km depth), the buried carnallite is thermodynamically unstable and so is converting to sylvite + solution (as the plot field now lies in the sylvite + solution field (Figure 3). If equilibrium is maintained the carnallite reacts incongruently to form further sylvite and MgCl2-solution. Thus, provided the temperature does not rise substantially, increasing pressure as a result of burial will favour the breakdown of carnallite to sylvite. However, as burial proceeds, the temperature may become high enough to favour once again the formation of carnallite from sylvite + solution (that is the solution plot point from A moves toward the right-hand side of the figure and back into the carnallite stability field).


Sylvite, interpreted to have formed from incongruent dissolution of primary carnallite, is reported from the Late Permian Zechstein Formation of Germany (Borchert and Muir, 1964), Late Permian Salado Formation of New Mexico (Adams, 1970), Early Mississippian Windsor Group of Nova Scotia (Evans, 1970), Early Cretaceous Muribeca Formation of Brazil and its equivalents in the Gabon Basin, West Africa (Wardlaw, 1972a, b; Wardlaw and Nicholls, 1972; Szatmari et al., 1979; de Ruiter, 1979), Late Cretaceous of the Maha Sarakham Formation, Khorat Plateau, Thailand and Laos (Hite and Japakasetr, 1979), Pleistocene Houston Formation, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia (Holwerda and Hutchinson, 1968), and Middle Devonian Prairie Formation of western Canada (Schwerdtner, 1964; Wardlaw, 1968) (See Table 1).

This well-documented literature base supports a long-held notion that there is a problem with sylvite as a primary (first precipitate) marine bittern salt, especially if the mother seawater had ionic proportions similar to those present in modern seawater (see Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990 for an excellent, if 30-year-old, review). We know from numerous evaporation experiments, that sylvite does not crystallise during the evaporation of modern seawater at 25°C, except under metastable equilibrium conditions (Braitsch, 1971; Valyashko, 1972; Hardie, 1984). The sequence of bitterns crystallising from modern seawater bitterns was illustrated in the previous Salty Matters article in this series (see Figure 1 in October 31 2018).

Across the literature documenting sylvite-carnallite associations in ancient evaporites, the dilemma of primary versus secondary sylvite is generally solved in one of three ways. Historically, many workers interpreted widespread sylvite as a diagenetic mineral formed by the incongruent dissolution of carnallite (Explanation 1). Then there is the interpretation that some sylvite beds, perhaps associated with tachyhydrite, were precipitated in the evaporite bittern part of a basin hydrology that was fed by CaCl2-rich basinal hydrothermal waters (Explanation 2: see Hardie, 1990 for a good discussion    of this mechanism). Then there is the third, and increasingly popular explanation of primary or syndepositional sylvite at particular times in the chemical evolution of the world oceans (MgSO4-depleted oceans).


Changes in the relative proportions of magnesium, sulphur and calcium in the world’s oceans are well supported by brine inclusion chemistry of co-associated chevron halite (Figure 4). Clearly, there are vast swathes of times in the earth’s past when the chemistry of seawater changed so that MgSO4 levels were lower than today and it was possible that sylvite was a primary marine bittern precipitate (see Lowenstein et al., 2014 for an excellent summary).

In my opinion, there is good evidence that all three explanations are valid within their relevant geological contexts but, if used exclusively to explain the presence of ancient sylvite, the argument becomes somewhat dogmatic. I would say that that, owing to its high solubility, the various textures and mineralogical associations of carnallite/sylvite and sulphate bitterns found in ancient potash ore beds reflect various and evolving origins. Ambient textures and mineralogies are dependent on how many times and how pervasively in a potash sequence’s geological burial history an evolving and reactive pore brine chemistry came into contact with parts or all of the extent of highly reactive potash beds (Warren, 2000; 2010; 2016).

In my experience, very few ancient examples of economic potash show layered textures indicating primary precipitation on a brine lake floor, instead, most ancient sylvite ores show evidence of at least one episode of alteration. That is, various forms and textures in potash may dissolve, recrystallise and backreact with each other from the time a potash salt is first precipitated until it is extracted. The observed textural and mineralogical evolution of a potash ore association depends on how open was the hydrology of the potash system at various stages during its burial evolution. The alteration can occur syndepositionally, in brine reflux, or later during flushing by compactional or thermobaric subsurface waters or during re-equilibration tied to uplift and telogenesis. Tectonism (extensional and compactional) during the various stages of a basin’s burial evolution acts as a bellows driving fluid flow within a basin, so forcing and speeding up the focused circulation of potash-altering waters.

 

A similar, but somewhat less intense, textural evolution tied to incongruent alteration is seen in the burial history of other variably hydrated evaporite salts. For example, CaSO4 can flip-flop from gypsum to anhydrite and back again depending on temperature, pore fluid salinity and the state of uplift/burial. Likewise, with the more complicated double salt polyhalite, there are mineralogical changes related to whether it formed in a MgSO4 enriched or depleted world ocean and the associated chemistry of the syndepositional reflux brines across extensive evaporite platforms (for a more detailed discussion of polyhalite see Salty Matters, July 31, 2018). Kainite-kieserite-carnallite also show evidence of ongoing incongruent interactions. This means that, as in gypsum/anhydrite/polyhalite or kain ite/kieserite sequences, there will be primary and secondary forms of both carnallite and sylvite that can alternate during deposition, during burial and any deep meteoric flushing and then again with uplift. In Quaternary brine factories these same incongruent chemical relationships are what facilitate the production of MOP (sylvite) from a carnallitite feed or SOP from kainite/kieserite/schoenite feed (see articles 1 and 2 in this series).

 

To document the three end-members of ancient sylvite-carnallite decomposition/precipitation we will look at three examples; 1) Oligocene potash in the Mulhouse Basin where primary sylvite textures are commonplace, 2) Devonian potash ores in western Canada, where multiple secondary stages of alteration are seen, and 3) Igneous-dyke associated sylvite in east Germany where thermally-driven volatisation (incongruent melting) forms sylvite from dehydrated carnallite.


Oligocene Potash, Mulhouse Basin France

Moving backwards into deep time, this 34 Ma deposit contains some of the first indications of well preserved primary marine-fed sylvinite (MOP) textures exemplified by laterally-continuous mm-scale alternations of potash and halite layers and lamina (Figure 5a-c). Interestingly, all solid-state potash deposits laid down in the post-Oligocene period contain increased proportions of MgSO4 salts, making them much more difficult to economically mine and process (see Table 1 and Salty Matters, May 12, 2015)

From 1904 until 2002, potash was conventionally mined in France from the Mulhouse Basin (near Alsace, France). With an area of 400 km2, the Mulhouse Basin is the southernmost of a number of Lower Oligocene evaporite basins that occupied the upper Rhine Graben, which at that time was a narrow adiabatic-arid rift valley (Figure 6a). The graben was a consequence of the collision between European and African plates during the Paleogene. It is part of a larger intracontinental rift system across Western Europe that extended from the North Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, stretching some 300 km from Frankfurt (Germany) in the north, to Basel (Switzerland) in the south, with an average width of 35 km (Cendon et al., 2008). The southern extent of the graben is limited by a system of faults that place Hercynian massifs and Triassic materials into contact with the Paleogene filling. Across the north, a complex system of structures (including salt diapirs) put the basin edges in contact with Triassic, Jurassic and Permian materials. In the region of the evaporite basins, the Paleogene fill of the graben lies directly on the Jurassic basement. The sedimentary filling of this rift sequence is asymmetrical with the deeper parts located at the southwestern and northeastern sides of the Graben (Rouchy, 1997).


Palaeogeographical reconstructions place the potential marine seaway seepage feed to the north or perhaps also southeast of the Mulhouse Basin, while marginal continental conglomerates tend to preclude any contemporaneous hydrographic connection with Oligocene ocean water (Blanc-Valleron, 1991; Hinsken et al., 2007; Cendon et al., 2008). At the time of its hydrographic isolation, some 34 Ma, the basin was located 40° north of the equator. Total fill of Oligocene lacustrine/marine-fed sediments in the graben is some 1,700m thick. The saline stage is dominated by anhydrite, halite and mudstone. The main saline sequence is underlain by non-evaporitic Eocene continental mudstones, with lacustrine fossils and local anhydrite beds. Evaporite bed continuity in the northern part of the basin is disturbed by (Permian-salt cored) diapiric and or erosional/fault movement. Consequently, these northern basins are not considered suitable for conventional potash mining (Figure 6a).

The Paleogene fill of the basin is divided into 6 units; a pre-evaporitic series, Lower Salt Group (LSG), Middle Salt Group (MSG), an Upper Salt Group (USG - with potash), Grey Marls Fm., and the Niederroedern Fm (Figure 7; Cendon et al., 2008). The LSG and lower section of the MSG are interpreted as lacustrine in origin, based on the limited palaeontologic and geochemical data. However, based on the presence of Cenozoic marine nannoplankton, shallow water benthic foraminifera, and well-diversified dinocyst assemblages in the fossiliferous zone below Salt IV, Blanc-Valleron (1991) favours a marine influence near the top of the MSG, while recognising the ambiguity of marine proportions with brackish faunas. Many marine-seepage fed brine systems have salinities that allow halotolerant species to flourish in marine-fed basins with no ongoing marine hydrographic connection (Warren, 2011). According to Blanc-Valleron and Schuler (1997), the region experienced a Mediterranean climate with long dry seasons during Salt IV member deposition.


In detail, the Salt IV member is made up of some 210 m of evaporitic sequence, with two relatively thin potash levels (Ci and Cs). The stratigraphy associated with this potash zone is, from base to top (Figure 7):

S2 Unit: 11.5 m thick with distinct layers of organic-rich marls, often dolomitic, with dispersed anhydrite layers.

S1 Unit: 19 m thick, evenly-bedded and made up of alternating metre-scale milky (inclusion-rich) halite layers, with much thinner marls and anhydrite layers. Marls show a sub-millimetric lamination formed by micritic carbonate laminae alternating with clay, quartz, and organic matter-rich laminae. Hofmann et al. (1993a, b) interpreted these couplets as reflecting seasonal variations. Anhydrite occasionally displays remnant swallowtail ghost textures, which suggest that at least part of the anhydrite first precipitated as subaqueous gypsum. Halite shows an abundance of growth-aligned primary chevron textures, along with fluid-inclusion banding suggesting halite was subaqueous and deposited beneath shallow brine sheets (Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990).

S Unit: Is 3.7 m thick and consists of thin marl layers and anhydrite, similar to the S2 Unit, with a few thin millimetric layers of halite.

Mi Unit: With a thickness of 6 m, it is mostly halite with similar characteristics to the S1 Unit. Sylvite was detected in one sample, but its presence is probably related to the evolution of interstitial brines (Cendon et al., 2008).

Ci Unit (“Couche inférieure”): Is formed by 4 m of alternating marls/anhydrite, halite, and sylvite beds (Figure 7).

The Ti unit consists of alternating beds of halite, marl and anhydrite. The top of the interval is the T unit, which is similar to the S unit and consists of alternating beds of marl and anhydrite. Above this is the Ms or upper Marl, near identical to the lower marl Mi. The Mi is overlain by the upper potash bed (Cs), a thinner, but texturally equivalent, bed compared to the sylvinitic Ci unit.

Thus, the Oligocene halite section includes two thin, but mined, potash zones: the Couche inferieure (Ci; 3.9m thick), and Couche superieure (Cs; 1.6m thick), both occur within Salt IV of the Upper Salt group (Figures 5, 7).

Both potash beds are made up of stacked, thin, parallel-sided cm-dm-thick beds (averaging 8 cm thickness), which are in turn constructed of couplets composed of grey-coloured halite overlain by red-coloured sylvite (Figure 5b). Each couplet has a sharp base that separates the basal halite from the sylvite cap of the underlying bed. In some cases, the separation is also marked by bituminous partings. The bottom-most halite in each dm-thick bed consists of halite aggregates with cumulate textures that pass upward into large, but delicate, primary chevrons and cornets. Clusters of this chevron halite swell upward to create a cm-scale hummocky boundary with the overlying sylvite (Figure 5c; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990).

The sylvite member of a sylvinite couplet consists of granular aggregates of small transparent halite cubes and rounded grains of red sylvite (with some euhedral sylvite hoppers) infilling the swales in the underlying hummocky halite (Figure 5b,c). The sylvite layer is usually thick enough to bury the highest protuberances of the halite, so that the top of each sylvite layer, and the top of the couplet, is flat. Dissolution pipes and intercrystalline cavities are noticeably absent, although some chevrons show rounded coigns. Intercalated marker beds, formed during times of brine pool freshening, are composed of a finely laminated bituminous shale, with dolomite and anhydrite.

The sylvite-halite couplets record combinations of unaltered settle-out and bottom-nucleated growth features, indicating primary chemical sediment accumulating in shallow perennial brine pools (Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). Based on the crystal size, the close association of halites with sylvite layers, their lateral continuity and the manner in which sylvite mantles overlie chevron halites, the sylvites are interpreted as primary precipitates. Sylvite first formed at the air-brine surface or within the uppermost brine mass and then sank to the bottom to form well-sorted accumulations. As sylvite is a prograde salt it, like halite, probably grew during times of cooling of the brine mass (Figure 8a). These times of cooling could have been diurnal (day/night) or weather-front induced changes in the above-brine air temperatures. Similar cumulate sylvite deposits form as ephemeral bottom accumulations on the floor of modern Lake Dabuxum in China during its more saline phases.


The subsequent mosaic textural overprint seen in many of the Mulhouse sylvite layers was probably produced by postdepositional modification of the crystal boundaries, much in the same way as mosaic halite is formed by recrystallisation of raft and cumulate halite during shallow burial. Temperature-based inclusion studies in both the sylvite and the halites average 63°C, suggesting solar heating of surface brines as precipitation took place (Figure 8b; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). Similar high at-surface brine temperatures are not unusual in many modern brine pools, especially those subject to periodic density stratification and heliothermometry (Warren 2016; Chapter 2).

Mineralogically, potash evaporites in the Mulhouse Basin in the Rhine Graben (also known as the Alsatian (Alsace) or Wittelsheim Potash district) contain sylvite with subordinate carnallite, but lack the abundant MgSO4 salts characteristic of the evaporation of modern seawater. The Rhine graben formed during the Oligocene, via crustal extension, related to mantle upwelling. It was, and is, a continental graben typified by high geothermal gradients along its rift axis. In depositional setting, it is not dissimilar to pree-120,000-year potash fill stage in the Quaternary Danakil Basin or the Dead Sea during deposition of potash salts in the Pliocene Sedom Fm. The role of a high-temperature geothermal inflow in defining the CaCl2 nature of the potash-precipitating brines, versus a derivation from a MgSO4-depleted marine feed, is considered significant in the Rhine Graben deposits, but is poorly understood and still not resolved (Hardie, 1990; Cendón et al., 2008). World ocean chemistry in the Oligocene is on a shoulder between the MgSO4-depleted CaCl2-rich oceans of the Cretaceous and the MgSO4-enriched oceans of the Neogene (Figure 4).


Cendón et al. (2008) conclude brine reaction processes were the most important factors controlling the major-ion (Mg, Ca, Na, K, SO4, and Cl) evolution of Mulhouse brines (Figure 9a-d). A combined analysis of fluid inclusions in primary textures by Cryo-SEM-EDS with sulphate- d34S, d18O and 87Sr/86Sr isotope ratios revealed likely hydrothermal inputs and recycling of Permian evaporites, particularly during the more advanced stages of evaporation that laid down the Salt IV member. Bromine levels imply an increasingly concentrated brine at that time (Figure 9a). The lower part of the Salt IV (S2 and S1) likely evolved from an initial marine input (Figure 9b-d).

Throughout, the basin was disconnected from direct marine hydrographic connection and was one of a series of sub-basins formed in an active rift setting, where tectonic variations influenced sub-basin interconnections and chemical signatures of input waters. Sulphate-d34S shows Oligocene marine-like signatures at the base of the Salt IV member (Figure 9c, d). However, enriched sulphate-d18O reveals the importance of synchronous re-oxidation processes.

As evaporation progressed, other non-marine or marine-modified inputs from neighbouring basins became more important. This is demonstrated by increases in K concentrations in brine inclusions and Br in halite, sulphate isotopes trends, and 87Sr/86Sr ratios (Figure 9b, c). The recycling (dissolution) of previously precipitated evaporites of Permian age was increasingly important with ongoing evaporation. In combination, this chemistry supports the notion of a connection of the Mulhouse Basin with basins situated north of Mulhouse. The brine evolution eventually reached sylvite precipitation. Hence, the chemical signature of the resulting brines is not 100% compatible with global seawater chemistry changes. Instead, the potash phase is tied to a hybrid inflow, with significant but decreasing marine input.

There was likely an initial marine source, but this occurred within a series of rift-valley basin depressions for which there was no direct hydrographic connection to the open ocean, even at the time the Middle Salt Member (potash-entraining) was first deposited (Cendon et al., 2008). That is, the general hydrological evolution of the primary textured evaporites in the Mulhouse basin sump is better explained as a restricted sub-basin with an initial marine-seepage stage. This gradually changed to ≈ 40% marine source near the beginning of evaporite precipitation, with the rest of hydrological inputs being non-marine. There was a significant contribution of solutes from recycled, in part diapiric, Permian evaporites, likely remobilised by the tectonics driving the formation of the rift valley (Hinsken et al., 2007; Cendon et al., 2008). The general proportion of solutes did not change substantially over the time of evaporite precipitation. However, as the basin restriction increased, the formerly marine inputs changed to continental, diapiric or marine-modified inputs, perhaps fed from neighbouring basins north of Mulhouse basin. As in the Ethiopian Danakhil potash-rift, it is likely brine interactions occurred both during initial and early post-depositional reflux overprinting of the original potash salt beds.


West Canadian potash (Devonian)

The Middle Devonian (Givetian) Prairie Evaporite Formation is a widespread potash-entraining halite sequence deposited in the Elk Point Basin, an early intracratonic phase of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin (WCSB; Chipley and Kyser, 1989). Today, it is the world’s predominant source of MOP fertiliser (Warren, 2016). The flexure that formed the basin and its subsealevel accommodation space was a distal downwarp to, and driven by, the early stages of the Antler Orogeny (Root, 2001). Texturally and geochemically the potash layers in the basin show the effects of multiple alterations and replacements of its potash minerals, especially interactions between sylvite and carnallite in a variably recrystallised halite host.

Regionally halite constitutes a large portion of the four formations that make up the Devonian Elk Point Group (Figure 10): 1) the Lotsberg (Lower and Upper Lotsberg Salt), 2) the Cold Lake (Cold Lake Salt), 3) the Prairie Evaporite (Whitkow and Leofnard Salt), and 4) the Dawson Bay (Hubbard Evaporite). Today the remnants of the Middle Devonian Prairie Evaporite Formation constitute a bedded unit some 220 metres thick, which lies atop the irregular topography of the platform carbonates of the Winnipegosis Fm. Extensive solutioning of the various salts has given rise to an irregular thickness to the formation and the local absence of salt (Figure 11a).


The Elk Point Group was deposited within what is termed the Middle Devonian “Elk Point Seaway,” a broad intracratonic sag basin extending from North Dakota and northeastern Montana at its southern extent north through southwestern Manitoba, southern and central Saskatchewan, and eastern to northern Alberta (Figure 11a). Its Pacific coast was near the present Alberta-British Columbia border, and the basin was centred at approximately 10°S latitude. To the north and west the basin was bound by a series of tectonic ridges and arches; but, due to subsequent erosion, the true eastern extent is unknown (Mossop and Shetsen, 1994). In northern Alberta, the Prairie Evaporite is correlated with the Muskeg and Presqu’ile formations (Rogers and Pratt, 2017).

Hydrographic isolation of the intracratonic basin from its marine connection resulted in the deposition of a drawndown sequence of basinwide (platform-dominant) evaporites with what is a uniquely high volume of preserved potash salts deposited within a clayey halite host. The potash resource in this basin far exceeds that of any other known potash basin in the world.


Potash geology

Potash deposits mined in Saskatchewan are all found within the upper 60-70 m of the Prairie Evaporite Formation, at depths of more than 400 to 2750 metres beneath the surface of the Saskatchewan Plains. Within the Prairie Evaporite, there are four main potash-bearing members, in ascending stratigraphic order they are: Esterhazy, White Bear, Belle Plaine and Patience Lake members (Figure 11b). Each member is composed of various combinations of halite, sylvite, sylvinite, and carnallitite, with occurrences of sylvite versus carnallite reliably definable using wireline signatures (once the wireline is calibrated to core or mine control - Figure 12; Fuzesy, 1982).

The Patience Lake Member is the uppermost Prairie Evaporite member and is separated from the Belle Plaine by 3-12 m of barren halite (Holter, 1972). Its thickness ranges from 0-21 m and averages 12 m, its top 7-14 m is made up halite with clay bands and stratiform sylvite. This is the targeted ore unit in conventional mines in the Saskatoon and Lanigan areas and is the solution-mined target, along with the underlying Belle Plaine Member, at the Mosaic Belle Plaine potash facility. The Belle Plaine member is separated from the Esterhazy by the White Bear Marker beds made up of some 15 m of low-grade halite, clay seams and sylvinite. The Belle Plaine Member is more carnallite-prone than the Patience Lake member (Figure 12). It is the ore unit in the conventional mines at Rocanville and Esterhazy (Figure 11b) where its thickness ranges from 0-18 m and averages around 9 m. In total, the Prairie Evaporite Formation does not contain any significant MgSO4 minerals (kieserite, polyhalite etc.) although some members do contain abundant carnallite. This mineralogy indicates precipitation from a Devonian seawater/brine chemistry somewhat different from today’s, with inherently lower relative proportions of sulphate and lower Mg/Ca ratios (Figure 4).

The Prairie Evaporite Fm. is nonhalokinetic throughout the basin, it is more than 200 m thick in the potash mining district in Saskatoon and 140 m thick in the Rocanville area to the southeast (Figure 11a; Yang et al., 2009). The Patience Lake member is the main target for conventional mining near Saskatoon. The Esterhazy potash member rises close to the surface in the southeastern part of Saskatchewan near Rocanville and on into Manitoba. This is a region where the Patience Lake Member is thinner or completely dissolved (Figure 11b). Over the area of mineable interest in the Patience Lake Member, centred on Saskatoon, the ore bed currently slopes downward only slightly in a westerly direction, but deepens more strongly to the south at a rate of 3-9 m/km. Mines near Saskatoon are at depths approaching a kilometre and so are nearing the limits of currently economic shaft mining.

The main shaft for the Colonsay Mine, which took IMC Global Inc. more than five years to complete through a water-saturated sediment column, finally reached the target ore body at a depth of 960 metres. Such depths and a southerly dip to the ore means that the conventional shaft mines near Saskatoon define a narrow WNW-ESE band of conventional mining activity (Figure 11c). To the south potash is recovered from greater depths by solution mining; for example, the Belle Plaine operation leaches potash from the Belle Plaine member at a depth of 1800m.

The Prairie Evaporite typically thins southwards in the basin; although local thickening occurs where carnallite, not sylvite, is the dominant potash mineral (Worsley and Fuzesy, 1979). The Patience Lake member is mined at the Cory, Allan and Lanigan mines, and the Esterhazy Member is mined in the Rocanville area (Figure 11c). Ore mined from the 2.4 m thick Esterhazy Member in eastern Saskatchewan contain minimal amounts of insolubles (≈1%), but considerable quantities of carnallite (typically 1%, but up to 10%) and this reduces the average KCl grade value to an average of 25% K2O. The converse is true for ore mined from the Patience Lake potash member in western Saskatchewan near Saskatoon, where carnallite is uncommon in the Cory and Allan mines. The mined ore thickness is a 2.74-3.35 metre cut off near the top of the 3.66-4.57metre Prairie Lake potash member. Ore grade is 20-26% K2O and inversely related to thickness (Figure 12). The insoluble content is 4-7%, mostly clay and markedly higher than in the Rocanville mines.


A typical sylvinite ore zone in the Patience Lake member can be divided into four to six units, based on potash rock-types and clay seams (Figures 12, 13a; M1-M6 of Boys, 1990). Units are mappable and have been correlated throughout the PCS Cory Mine with varying degrees of success, dependent on partial or complete loss of section from dissolution. Potash deposition appears to have been early and related to short-term brine seaway cooling and syndepositional brine reflux. So the potash layering (M1-M6) is cyclic, expressed in the repetitive distribution of hematite and other insoluble minerals (Figure 13). Desiccation polygons, desiccation cracks, subvertical microkarst pits and chevron halite crystals indicate that the Patience Lake member that encompasses the potash ore was deposited in and just beneath a shallow-brine, salt-pan environment (Figure 13b; Boys, 1990; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990; Brodlyo and Spencer, 1987; pers. obs).

Clay seams form characteristic thin stratigraphic segregations throughout the potash ore zone(s) of the Prairie Evaporite, as well as disseminated intervals, and constitute about 6% of the ore as mined. For example, the insoluble minerals found in the PCS Cory samples are, in approximate order of decreasing abundance: dolomite, clay [illite, chlorite (including swelling-chlorite/chlorite), and septechlorite, quartz, anhydrite, hematite, and goethite. Clay minerals make up about one-third of the total insolubles: other minor components include: potassium feldspar, hydrocarbons, and sporadic non-diagnostic palynomorphs (Figure 13; Boys, 1990).

In all mines, the clays tend to occur as long continuous seams or marker layers between the potash zones and are mainly composed of detrital chlorite and illite, along withauthigenic septechlorite, montmorillonite and sepiolite (Mossman et al., 1982; Boys, 1990). Of the two chlorite minerals, septechlorite is the more thermally stable. The septechlorite, sepiolite and vermiculite very likely originated as direct products of settle-out, syndepositional dissolution or early diagenesis under hypersaline conditions from a precursor that was initially eolian dust settling to the bottom of a vast brine seaway. The absence of the otherwise ubiquitous septechlorite from Second Red Beds west of the zero-edge of the evaporite basin supports this concept (Figure 9, 10).


Potash Textures

Texturally, at the cm-scale, potash salt beds in the Prairie Evaporite (both carnallitite and sylvinite) lack the lateral continuity seen in primary potash textures in the Oligocene of the Mulhouse Basin (Figure 14). Prairie potash probably first formed as syndepositional secondary precipitates and alteration products at very shallow depths just beneath the sediment surface. These early prograde precipitates were then modified to varying degrees by ongoing fluid flushing in the shallow burial environment. The cyclic depositional distribution of disseminated insolubles as the clay marker beds was possibly due to a combination of source proximity, periodic enrichment during times of brine freshening and the strengthening of the winds blowing detritals out over the brine seaway. Possible intra-potash disconformities, created by dissolution of overlying potash-bearing salt beds, are indicated by an abundance of residual hematite in clay seams with some cutting subvertically into the potash bed. Except in, and near, dissolution levels and collapse features, the subsequent redistribution of insolubles, other than iron oxides, is not significant.

In general, halite-sylvite (sylvinite) rocks in the Prairie Evaporite ore zones generally show two end member textures; 1) the most common is a recrystallised polygonal mosaic texture with individual crystals ranging from millimetres to centimetres and sylvite grain boundaries outlined by concentrations of blood-red halite (Figure 14a). 2) The other end member texture is a framework of euhedral and subhedral halite cubes enclosed by anhedral crystals of sylvite (Figure 14b). This is very similar to ore textures in the Salado Formation of New Mexico interpreted as early passive precipitates in karstic voids.

Petrographically, the halite-carnallite (carnallitite) rocks display three distinct textures. Most halite-carnallite rocks contain isolated centimetre-sized cube mosaics of halite enclosed by poikilitic carnallite crystals (Figure 14c); 1) Individual halite cubes are typically clear, with occasional cloudy crystal cores that retain patches of syndepositional growth textures (Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). 2) The second texture is coarsely crystalline halite-carnallite with equigranular, polygonal mosaic textures. In zones where halite overlies bedded anhydrite, most of the halite is clear with only the occasional crystal showing fluid inclusion banding.

Bedded halite away from the ore zones generally retains a higher proportion of primary depositional textures typical of halite precipitation in shallow ephemeral saline pans (Figure 14d; Brodylo and Spencer, 1987). Crystalline growth fabrics, mainly remnants of vertically-elongate halite chevrons, are found in 50-90% of the halite from many intervals in the Prairie Evaporite. Many of the chevrons are truncated by irregular patches of clear halite that formed as early diagenetic cements in syndepositional karst.

In contrast, the halite hosting the potash ore layers lacks well-defined primary textures but is dominated by intergrown mosaics. From the regional petrology and the lower than expected Br levels in halite in the Prairie Evaporite Formation, Schwerdtner (1964), Wardlaw and Watson (1966) and Wardlaw (1968) postulated a series of recrystallisation events forming sylvite after carnallite as a result of periodic flushing by hypersaline solutions. This origin as a secondary precipitate (via incongruent dissolution) is supported by observations of intergrowth and overgrowth textures (McIntosh and Wardlaw, 1968), collapse and dissolution features at various scales and timings (Gendzwill, 1978; Warren 2017), radiometric ages (Baadsgaard, 1987) and palaeomagnetic orientations of the diagenetic hematite linings associated with the emplacement of the potash (Koehler, 1997; Koehler et al., 1997).

Dating of clear halite crystals in void fills within the ore levels shows that some of the exceptionally coarse and pure secondary halites forming pods in the mined potash horizons likely precipitated during early burial, while other sparry halite void fills formed as late as Pliocene-Pleistocene (Baadsgard, 1987). Even today, alteration and remobilisation of the sylvite and carnallite and the local precipitation of bischofite are ongoing processes, related to the encroachment of the contemporary dissolution edge or the ongoing stoping of chimneys fed by deep artesian circulation (pers obs.).


Fluid inclusion studies support the notion of primary textures (low formation temperatures in chevron halite in the Prairie evaporite and an associated thermal separation of non-sylvite and sylvite associated halite (Figure 15; Chipley et al., 1990). Most fluid inclusions found in primary, fluid inclusion-banded halite associated with the Prairie potash salts contain sylvite daughter crystals at room temperature or nucleate them on cooling (e.g. halite at 915 and 945 m depth in the Winsal Osler well; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). In contrast, no sylvite daughter crystals have been observed in fluid inclusions outlining primary growth textures from chevron halites away from the potash deposits.

The data illustrated as Figure 15 clearly show that inclusion temperatures in primary halite chevrons are cooler than those in halites collected in intervals nearer the potash levels. Sylvite daughter crystal dissolution temperatures from fluid inclusions in the cloudy centres of halite crystals associated with potash salts are generally warmer (Brodlyo and Spencer, 1987; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). Sylvite and carnallite daughter crystal dissolution temperatures from fluid inclusions in fluid inclusion banded halite from bedded halite-carnallite are the hottest. This mineralogically-related temperature schism establishes that potash salts occur in stratigraphic intervals in the halite where syndepositional surface brines were warmer. In the 50° - 70°C temperature range there could be overlap with heliothermal brine lake waters. Even so, these warmer potash temperatures imply parent brines would likely be moving via a shallow reflux drive and are not the result of primary bottom nucleation (in contrast to primary sylvite in the Mulhouse Basin). Whether the initial Prairie reflux potash precipitate was sylvite or carnallite is open to interpretation (Lowenstein and Hardie, 1990).


Fluid evolution from mineral and isotope chemistry

Analysis of subsurface waters from various Canadian potash mines and collapse anomalies in the Prairie Evaporite suggest that, after initial potash precipitation, a series of recrystallising fluids accessed the evaporite levels at multiple times throughout the burial history of the Prairie Formation (Chipley, 1995; Koehler, 1997; Koehler et al., 1997). Likewise, the isotope systematics and K-Ar ages of sylvite in both halite and sylvite layers indicate that the Prairie Evaporite was variably recrystallised during fluid overprint events (Table 2; Figure 16). These event ages are all younger than original deposition (≈390Ma) and likely correspond to ages of various tectonic events that influenced subsurface hydrology along the western margin of North America.


Chemical compositions of inclusion fluids in the Prairie Evaporite, as determined by their thermometric properties, reveal at least two distinct waters played a role in potash formation: a Na-K-Mg-Ca-Cl brine, variably saturated with respect to sylvite and carnallite; and a Na-K-Cl brine (Horita et al., 1996). That is, contemporary inclusion water chemistry is a result in part of ongoing fluid-rock interaction. The ionic proportions in some halite samples are not the result of simple evaporation of seawater to the sylvite bittern stage (Figure 17a; Horita et al., 1996). There is a clear separation of values from chevron halites in samples from the Lanigan and Bredenbury (K-2 area) mines, which plot closer to the concentration trend seen in halite from modern seawater and values from clear or sparry halite. The latter encompass much lower K and higher Br related to fractionation tied to recrystallisation. Likewise, the influence of ongoing halite and potash salt dissolution is evident in the chemistry of shaft and mine waters with mine level waters showing elevated Mg and K values, (Figure 17b; Wittrup and Kyser, 1990; Chipley, 1995). What is more the mine waters of today show  substantial overlap with waters collected more than thirty years ago (Jensen et al., 2006)


This notion of ongoing fluid-rock interaction controlling the chemistry of mine waters is supported by dD and d18O values of inclusion fluids in both halite and sylvite, which range from -146 to 0‰ and from -17.6 to -3.0‰, respectively (Figure 18). Most of the various preserved isotope values are different from those of evaporated seawater, which should have dD and d18O values near 0‰.

Furthermore, the dD and d18O values of inclusion fluids are probably not the result of precipitation of the evaporite minerals from a brine that was a mixture of seawater and meteoric water. The low latitude position of the basin during the Middle Devonian (10-15° from the equator), the required lack of meteoric water to precipitate basinwide evaporites, and the expected dD and d18O values of any meteoric water in such a setting, make this an unlikely explanation. Rather, the dD and d18O values of inclusion fluids in the halites reflect ambient and evolving brine chemistries as the fluids in inclusions in the various growth layers were intermittently trapped during the subsurface evolution of the Prairie Formation in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. They also suggest that periodic migration of nonmarine subsurface water was a significant component of the crossflowing basinal brines throughout much of the recrystallisation history (Chipley, 1995).

Prairie carnallite-sylvite alteration over time

Ongoing alteration of carnallite to sylvite and the reverse reaction means a sylvite-carnallite bed must be capable of gaining or losing fluid at the time of alteration. That is, any reacting potash beds must be permeable at the time of the alteration. By definition, there must be fluid egress to drive incongruent alteration of carnallite to sylvite or fluid ingress to drive the alteration of sylvite to carnallite. There can also be situations in the subsurface where the volume of undersaturated fluid crossflow was sufficient to remove (dissolve) significant quantities of the more soluble evaporite salts. Many authors looking at the Prairie evaporite argue that the fluid access events during the alteration of carnallite to sylvite or the reverse, or the complete leaching of the soluble potash salts was driven by various tectonic events (Figure 16). In the early stages of burial alteration (few tens of metres from the landsurface) the same alteration processes can be driven by varying combinations of brine reflux, prograde precipitation and syndepositional karstification, all driven by changes in brine level and climate, which in turn may not be related to tectonism (Warren, 2016; Chapters 2 and 8 for details).

In the potash areas of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, the notion of 10-100 km lateral continuity is a commonly stated precept for both sylvinite and carnallitite units across the extent of the Prairie Evaporite. But when the actual distribution and scale of units are mapped based on mined intercepts, there are numerous 10-100 metre-scale discontinuities (anomalies) present indicating fluid ingress or egress (Warren, 2017).


Sometimes ore beds thin and alteration degrades the ore level (Section A-A1-A2), other times these discontinuities can locally enrich sylvite ore grade (B-B1; Figure 19). Discontinuities or salt anomalies are much more widespread in the Prairie evaporite than mentioned in much of the potash literature (Figure 19). Mining for maintenance of ore grade shows that unexpectedly intersecting an anomaly in a sylvite ore zone can have a range of outcomes ranging from the inconsequential to the catastrophic, in part because there is more than one type of salt anomaly or “salt horse" (Warren, 2017).


Figure 20 summarises what are considered the three most common styles of salt anomaly in the sylvite ore beds of the Prairie Evaporite, namely 1) Washouts, 2) Leach anomalies, 3) Collapse anomalies. These ore bed disturbances and their occurrence styles are in part time-related. Washouts are typically early (eogenetic) and defined as... “salt-filled V- or U-shaped structures, which transect the normal bedded sequence and obliterate the stratigraphy” (Figure 20a; Mackintosh and McVittie, 1983, p. 60). They are typically enriched in, or filled by, insoluble materials in their lower one-third and medium-coarse-grained sparry halite in the upper two thirds. Up to several metres across, when traced laterally they typically pass into halite-cemented paleo-sinks and cavern networks (e.g. Figure 20b). Most washouts likely formed penecontemporaneous to the potash beds they transect, that is, they are preserved examples of synkarst, with infilling of the karst void by a slightly later halite cement. They indicate watertable lowering in a potash-rich saline sump. This leaching was followed soon after by a period of higher watertables and brine saturations, when halite cements occluded the washouts and palaeocaverns. Modern examples of this process typify the edges of subcropping and contemporary evaporite beds, as about the recently exposed edges of the modern Dead Sea. As such, “washouts” tend to indicate relatively early interactions of the potash interval with undersaturated waters, they may even be a part of the syndepositional remobilisation hydrology that focused, and locally enriched, potash ore levels.

In a leach anomaly zone, the stratabound sylvinite ore zone has been wholly or partially replaced by barren halite, without significantly disturbing the normal stratigraphic sequence (clay marker beds) which tend to continue across the anomaly (Figure 20b). Some loss of volume or local thinning of the stratigraphy is typical in this type of salt anomaly. Typically saucer-shaped, they have diameters ranging from a few metres up to 400m. Less often, they can be linear features that are up to 20 m wide and 1600m long. Leach zones can form penecontemporaneously due to depressions and back-reactions in the ore beds, or by later low-energy infiltration of Na-saturated, K-undersaturated brines. The latter method of formation is also likely on the margins of collapse zones, creating a hybrid situation typically classified as a leach-collapse anomaly (Mackintosh and McVittie, 1983; McIntosh and Wardlaw, 1968).

Of the three types of salt anomaly illustrated, leach zone processes are the least understood. Historically, when incongruent dissolution was the widely accepted interpretation for loss of unit thickness in the Prairie Evaporite, many leach anomalies were considered metasomatic. Much of the original metasomatic interpretation was based on decades of detailed work in the various salt mines of the German Zechstein Basin. There, in an endemic halokinetic terrane, evaporite textures were considered more akin to metamorphic rocks, and the term metasomatic alteration was commonly used when explaining leach anomalies (Bochert and Muir, 1964, Braitsch, 1971). In the past two decades, general observations of the preservation of primary chevron halite in most bedded evaporites away from the potash layers in the Prairie Evaporite have led to reduced use of notions of widespread metamorphic-like metasomatic or solid-state alteration processes in bedded evaporites. There is just too much preserved primary texture in the bedded salt units adjacent to potash beds to invoke pervasive burial metasomatism of the Prairie Evaporite.


So how do leach anomalies, as illustrated in Figure 20b, occur in nonhalokinetic settings? One possible explanation is given by the depositional textures documented in anomalies in the Navarra Potash Province (Figure 21). There, the underlying and overlying salt stratigraphy is contiguous, while the intervening sylvite passed laterally into a syndepositional anomaly or “salt horse” created by an irregular topography on the salt pan floor prior to the deposition of onlapping primary sylvinite layers (see Warren 2016, 2017 for detailed discussion)

On the other hand, in halokinetic situations (which characterises much Zechstein salt) solid-state alteration via inclusion related migration in flowing salt beds is a well-documented set of texture-altering processes (diffusion metasomatism). Most workers in such halokinetic systems would agree that there must have been an original stratiform potassium segregation present during or soon after deposition related to initial precipitation, fractional dissolution and karst-cooling precipitation. But what is controlling potassium distribution now in the Zechstein salts is a recrystallised and remobilised set of textures, which preserve little or no crystal-scale evidence of primary conditions (Warren, 2016; Chapter 6). The complex layering in such deposits may preserve a broad depositional stratigraphy, but the decimetre to metre scale mineral distributions are indications of complex interactions of folds, overfolds, and disaggregation with local flow thickening. We shall return to this discussion of Zechstein potash textures in the next section dealing with devolatisation of hydrated salts such as carnallite. in zones of local heating

Collapse zones in the Prairie Evaporite are characterized by a loss of recognizable sylvinite ore strata, which is replaced by less saline brecciated, recemented and recrystallized material, with the breccia blocks typically made of the intrasalt or roof lithologies (Figure 20c), so angular fragments of the Second Red beds and dolostones of the Dawson Bay Formation are the most conspicuous components of the collapse features in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. When ore dissolution is well developed, all the halite can dissolve, along with the potash salts, and the overlying strata collapse into the cavity (these are classic solution collapse features). Transitional leached zones typically separate the collapsed core from normal bedded potash. Such collapse structures indicate a breach of the ore layers by unsaturated waters, fed either from below or above. For example, in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, well-developed collapse structures tend to occur over the edges and top Devonian mud mounds, while in the New Mexico potash zone the collapse zones are related to highs in the underlying Capitan reef trend (Warren, 2017). Leaching fluids may have come from below or above to form collapse structures at any time after initial deposition. When connected to a water source, these are the subsurface features that when intersected can quickly move the mining operation out of the salt into an adjacent aquifer system, a transition that led to flooding in most of the mine-lost operations listed earlier.

Identifying at the mine scale the set of processes that created a salt anomaly in a sylvite bed also has implications in terms of its likely influence on mine stability whatever decision is made on how to deal with it as part of the ongoing mine operation (Warren, 2016, 2017). Syndepositional karst fills and leach anomalies are least likely to be problematic if penetrated during mining, as the aquifer system that formed them is likely no longer active. In contrast, penetration or removal of the region around a salt-depleted collapse breccia may lead to uncontrollable water inflows and ultimately to the loss of the mine.

Unfortunately, in terms of production planning, the features of the periphery of a leach anomaly can be similar if not identical to those in the alteration halo that typically forms about the leached edge a collapse zone. The processes of sylvite recrystallisation that define the edge of collapse anomaly can lead to local enrichment in sylvite levels, making these zones surrounding the collapse core attractive extraction targets (Boys 1990, 1993). Boundaries of any alteration halo about a collapse centre are not concentric, but irregular, making the prediction of a feature’s geometry challenging, if not impossible. The safest course of action is to avoid mining salt anomalies, but longwall techniques make this difficult and so they must be identified and dealt with (see Warren 2017).


Cooking sylvite: Dykes & sills in potash salts

 

In addition to; 1) primary sylvite and 2) sylvite/carnallite alteration via incongruent transformation in burial, there is a third mode of sylvite formation related to 3) igneous heating driving devolatisation of carnallitite, which can perhaps be considered a form of incongruent melting (Warren, 2016). And so, at a local scale (measured in metres to tens of metres) in potash beds cut by igneous intrusions, there are a number of documented thermally-driven alteration styles and thermal haloes. Most are created by the intrusion of hot doleritic or basaltic dykes and sills into cooler salt masses, or the outflow of extrusive igneous flows over cooler salt beds (Knipping, 1989; Grishina et al, 1992, 1998; Gutsche, 1988; Steinmann et al., 1999; Wall et al., 2010). Hot igneous material interacts with somewhat cooler anhydrous salt masses to create narrow, but distinct, heat and mobile fluid-release envelopes, also reflected in the resulting salt textures. At times, relatively rapid magma emplacement can lead to linear breakout trends outlined by phreatomagmatic explosion craters, as imaged in portions of the North Sea (Wall et al., 2010) and the Danakhil/Dallol potash beds in Ethiopia (Salty Matters, May 1, 2015).

Based on studies of inclusion chemistry and homogenization temperatures in fluid inclusions in bedded halite near intrusives, it seems that the extent of the influence of a dolerite sill or dyke in bedded salt is marked by fluid-inclusion migration, evidenced by the disappearance of chevron structures and consequent formation of clear halite with a different set of higher-temperature inclusions. Such a migration envelope is well documented in bedded Cambrian halites intruded by end-Permian dolerite dykes in the Tunguska region of Siberia (Grishina et al., 1992).

Defining h as the thickness of the dolerite intrusion in these salt beds, and d as the distance of the halite from the edge of the intrusion, then the disappearance of chevrons occurs at greater distances above than below the intrusive sill. For d/h < 0.9 below the intrusion, CaCl2, CaCl2, KCl and nCaCl2, mMgCl2 solids occur in association with water-free and liquid-CO2 inclusions, with H2S, SCO and orthorhombic or glassy S8. For a d/h of 0.2-2 above the intrusion, H2S-bearing liquid-CO2 inclusions are typical, with various amounts of water. Thus, as a rule of thumb, an alteration halo extends up to twice the thickness of the dolerite sill above the sill and almost the thickness of the sill below (Figure 22).

In a series of autoclavation laboratory experiments, Fabricius and Rose-Hampton (1988) found that; 1) at atmospheiric pressure carnallite melts incongruently to sylvite and hydrated MgCl2 at a temperature of 167.5°C. 2) the melting/transformation temperature increase to values in excess of 180°C as the pressure increases (Figure 23).


A similar situation occurs in the dyke-intruded halite levels exposed in the mines of the Werra-Fulda district of Germany (Steinmann et al., 1999; Schofield, et al., 2014). There the Herfa-Neurode potash mine is located in the Werra-Fulda Basin in the Hessian district of central Germany (Figure 24a). The targeted ore levels consist of the carnallite-rich Kaliflöz Hessen (K1H) and Kaliflöz Thüringen (K1Th) intervals, which form part of the Zechstein 1 (Z1) bedded Werra salt succession (Warren, 2016). In the mine the K1H and K1Th units range in thickness from 2 m to 10 m, are generally subhorizontal and occur at a depth of 650–710 m below the present-day surface.


In the later Tertiary, basaltic melts intruded these Zechstein evaporites as numerous sub-vertical dykes, but only a few dykes attained the Miocene landsurface. Basaltic melt production was related to regional volcanic activity some 10 to 25 Ma. Basalts exposed in the mine walls, where it cuts non-hydrous units of halite or anhydrite, are typically subvertical dykes, rather than subhorizontal sills. The basalts are phonolitic tephrites, limburgites, basanites and olivine nephelinites. Dyke margins are usually vitrified, forming a microlitic limburgite glass along dyke edges in contact with halite (Figure 24b; Knipping, 1989). At the contact on the evaporite side of the glassy rim, there is a cm-wide carapace of high-temperature salts (mostly anhydrite and ferroan carbonates). Further out, the effect of the high-temperature envelope is denoted by transitions to clear halite, with higher temperature fluid inclusions (Knipping 1989). All of this metre-scale alteration is an anhydrous alteration halo, the halite did not melt (melting temperature of 804°C), rather than migrating, the fluid driving recrystallisation was mostly from entrained brine/gas inclusions. The dolerite/basalt interior of the basaltic dyke is likewise altered and salt soaked, with clear, largely inclusion-free halite typically filling vesicles in the basalt.

Heating of hydrated (carnallitic) salt layers, adjacent to a dyke or sill, tends to drive off the water of crystallisation (chemical or hydration thixotropy) at much lower temperatures than that at which anhydrous salts, such as halite or anhydrite, thermally melt (Figure 24c; Table 3). For example, in the Fulda region, the thermally-driven release of water of crystallisation within carnallitic beds creates thixotropic or subsurface “peperite” textures as carnallitite alters to sylvinite layers. These are layers where heated water of crystallisation escaped from the hydrated-salt lattice. Dehydration-driven loss of mechanical strength focuses zones of magma entry into particular subhorizontal horizons in the salt mass, wherever hydrated salt layers were present. In contrast, dyke and sill margins are much sharper and narrower in zones of contact with anhydrous salt intervals and the intrusive is sub-vertical to steeply dipping (Figure 24b versus 24c).

Accordingly, away from the immediate vicinity of the direct thermal aureole, heated and overpressured dehydration waters can enter carnallite halite bed, and drive the creation of extensive soft sediment deformation and peperite textures in hydrated layer (Figure 24c). Mineralogically, sylvite and coarse recrystallised halite dominate the salt fraction in the peperite intervals of the Herfa-Neurode mine. Sylvite in the altered zone is a form of dehydrated carnallite, not a primary-textured salt. Across the Fulda region, such altered zones and deformed units can extend along former carnallite layer to tens or even a hundred or more metres from the dyke feeder. Ultimately, the deformed potash bed passes back out into the unaltered bed, which retains abundant inclusion-rich halite and carnallite (Schofield et al., 2014).

That is, nearer the basalt dyke, the carnallite is largely transformed into inclusion-poor halite and sylvite, the result of incongruent flushing of warm saline fluids mobilised from the hydrated carnallite crystal lattice as it was heated by dyke emplacement. During Miocene salt alteration/thermal metamorphism in the Fulda region, NaCl-fluids were mixed with fluids and gases originating from thermally-mobilised crystallisation water in the carnallite, as it converted to sylvite. This brine/gas mixture altered the basalts during post-intrusive cooling, an event which numerical models suggest was quite rapid (Knipping, 1989): a dyke of less than 0.5 m thickness probably cooled to temperatures less than 200°C within 14 days of dyke emplacement.

The contrast in alteration extent between anhydrous and hydrous salt layers shows alteration effects are minimal wherever the emplacement temperature of the magma is below that of the anhydrous salt body as it is next to a basalt dyke. If this is the mechanism driving entry of igneous-related volatiles (gases and liquids) into a salt body, then the distribution of products (including CO2) will be highly inhomogeneous and related to the minerally of the salt unit adjacent to the intrusive. Worldwide, dykes intersecting salt beds tend to widen to become sills in two zones: 1) along evaporite units within the halite mass that contain hydrated salts, such as carnallite or gypsum (Figure 24c) and, 2) where rising magma has ponded and so created laccoliths at the upper or lower halite contact with the adjacent nonsalt strata or against a salt wall (Figure 22 vs 24). The first is a response to a pulse of released water as dyke-driven heating forces the dehydration of hydrated salt layers. The second is a response to the mechanical strength contrast at the salt-nonsalt contact.

In summary, sylvite formed from a carnallite precursor during Miocene salt alteration/thermal metamorphism in the Fulda region, NaCl-fluids were mixed with fluids originating from thermally-mobilised crystallisation water in the carnallite, as it converted to sylvite. This brine mixture altered the basalts during post-intrusive cooling, an event which numerical models suggest was quite rapid (Knipping, 1989): a dyke of less than 0.5 m thickness probably cooled to temperatures less than 200°C within 14 days of dyke emplacement.

How do we produce potash salts?

 

Over this series of three articles focused on current examples of potash production, we have seen there are two main groups of potash minerals currently utilised to make fertiliser, namely, muriate of potash (MOP) and sulphate of potash (SOP). MOP is both mined (generally from a Pre-Neogene sylvinite ore) or produced from brine pans (usually via processing of a carnallitite slurry). In contrast, large volumes of SOP are today produced from brine pans in China and the USA but with only minor production for solid-state ore targets. Historically, SOP was produced from solid-state ores in Sicily, the Ukraine, and Germany but today there are no conventional mines with SOP as the prime output in commercial operation (See Salty Matters, May 12, 2015).

The MgSO4-enriched chemistry of modern seawater makes the economic production of potash bitterns from a seawater-feed highly challenging. Today, there is no marine-fed plant anywhere in the world producing primary sylvite precipitates. However, sylvite is precipitating from a continental brine feed in salt pans on the Bonneville salt flat, Utah. There, a brine field, drawing shallow pore waters from saltflat sediments, supplies suitably low-MgSO4 inflow chemistry to the concentrator pans. Sylvite also precipitates in solar evaporator pans in Utah that are fed brine circulated through the abandoned workings of the Cane Creek potash mine (Table 1).

Large-scale production of MOP fertiliser from potash precipitates created in solar evaporation pans is taking place in perennially subaqueous saline pans of the southern Dead Sea and the Qaidam Basin. In the Dead Sea, the feed brine is pumped from the waters of the northern Dead Sea basin, while in the Qaidam sump the feed is from a brine field drawing pore brines with an appropriate mix of river and basinal brine inputs. In both cases, the resulting feed brine to the final concentrators is relatively depleted in magnesium and sulphate. These source bitterns have ionic proportions not unlike seawater in times of ancient MgSO4-depleted oceans. Carnallitite slurries, not sylvinite, are the MOP precipitates in pans in both regions. When feed chemistry of the slurry is low in halite, then the process to recover sylvite is a cold crystallisation technique. When halite impurity levels in the slurry are higher, sylvite is manufactures using a more energy intensive, and hence more expensive, hot crystallisation technique. Similar sulphate-depleted brine chemistry is used in Salar Atacama, where MOP and SOP are recovered as byproducts of the production of lithium carbonate brines.

Significant volumes of SOP are recovered from a combination of evaporation and cryogenic modification of sulfate-enriched continental brines in pans on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, and Lop Nur, China. When concentrated and processed, SOP is recovered from the processing of a complex series of Mg-K-SO4 double salts (schoenitic) in the Odgden pans fed brines from the Great Salt Lake. The Lop Nur plant draws and concentrates pore waters from a brine field drawing waters from glauberite-polyhalite-entraining saline lake sediments.

All the Quaternary saline lake factories supply less than 20% of the world's potash; the majority comes from the conventional mining of sylvinite ores. The world's largest reserves are held in Devonian evaporites of the Prairie Evaporite in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. Textures and mineral chemistry show that the greater volume of bedded potash salts in this region is not a primary sylvite precipitate. Rather the ore distribution, although stratiform and defined by a series of clay marker beds, actually preserves the effects of multiple modifications and alterations tied to periodic egress and ingress of basinal waters. Driving mechanisms for episodes of fluid crossflow range from syndepositional leaching and reflux through to tectonic pumping and uplift (telogenesis). Ore distribution and texturing reflect local-scale (10-100 metres) discontinuities and anomalies created by this evolving fluid chemistry. Some alteration episodes are relatively benign in terms of mineralogical modification and bed continuity. Others, generally tied to younger incidents (post early Cretaceous) of undersaturated crossflow and karstification, can have substantial effects on ore continuity and susceptibility to unwanted fluid entry. In contrast, ore textures and bed continuity in the smaller-scale sylvinite ores in the Oligocene Mulhouse Basin, France, indicate a primary ore genesis.

What makes it economic?

Across the Quaternary, we need a saline lake brine systems with the appropriate brine proportions, volumes and climate to precipitate the right association of processable potash salts. So far, the price of potash, either MOP or SOP, and the co-associated MgSO4 bitterns, precludes industrial marine-fed brine factories.

In contrast, to the markedly nonmarine locations of potash recovery from the Quaternary sources, almost all pre-Quaternary potash operations extract product from marine-fed basinwide ore hosts during times of MgSO4-depleted and MgSO4-enriched oceans (Warren, 2016; Chapter 11). This time-based dichotomy in potash ore sources with nonmarine hosts in the Quaternary deposits and marine evaporite hosted ore zones in Miocene deposits and older, reflects a simple lack of basinwide marine deposits and appropriate marine chemistry across the Neogene (Warren, 2010). As for all ancient marine evaporites, the depositional system that deposited ancient marine-fed potash deposits was one to two orders of magnitude larger and the resultant deposits were typically thicker stacks than any Quaternary potash settings. The last such “saline giant” potash system was the Solfifera series in the Sicilian basin, deposited as part of the Mediterranean “salinity crisis,” but these potential ore beds are of the less economically attractive MgSO4- enriched marine potash series.

So, what are the factors that favour the formation of, and hence exploration for, additional deposits of exploitable ancient potash? First, large MOP solid-state ore sources are all basinwide, not lacustrine deposits. Within the basinwide association, it seems that intracratonic basins host significantly larger reserves of ore, compared to systems that formed in the more tectonically-active plate-edge rift and suture association. This is a reflection of: 1) accessibility – near the shallow current edge of a salt basin, 2) a lack of a halokinetic overprint and, 3) the setup of longterm, stable, edge-dissolution brine hydrologies that typify many intracratonic basins. Known reserves of potash in the Devonian Prairie evaporite in West Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) are of the order of 50 times that of next largest known deposit, the Permian of the Upper Kama basin, and more than two orders of magnitude larger than any other of the other known exploited deposits (Table 1).

Part of this difference in the volume of recoverable reserves lies in the fact that the various Canadian potash members in the WCSB are still bedded and flat-lying. Beds have not been broken up or steepened, by any subsequent halokinesis. The only set of processes overprinting and remobilising the various potash salts in the WCSB are related to multiple styles and timings of aquifer encroachment on the potash units, and this probably took place at various times since the potash was first deposited, driven mainly by a combination of hinterland uplift and subrosion. In contrast, most of the other significant potash basins listed in Table 10 have been subjected to ongoing combinations of halokinesis and groundwater encroachments, making these beds much less laterally predictable. In their formative stages, the WCSB potash beds were located a substantial distance from the orogenic belt that drove flexural downwarp and creation of the subsealevel sag depression. Like many other intracratonic basins, the WCSB did not experience significant syndepositional compression or rift-related loading.

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Salt Dissolution (4 of 5): Anthropogenically-enhanced geohazards

John Warren - Thursday, November 30, 2017

 

Introduction

As we saw in the previous article the dissolution and collapse of nearsurface and at-surface salt is a natural and ongoing process. When salt bodies experiencing natural dissolution and alteration are penetrated by drilling or parts of the salt mass are extracted in a poorly supervised fashion, the resulting disturbance can speed up natural solution and collapse, sometimes with unexpected environmental consequences (Figure 1; Table 1). To minimise the likelihood of unexpected environmental consequences tied to enhanced rates of salt dissolution in the vicinity of engineered structures the same rule applies as is applied to safe salt mining, namely "Stay in the salt" (Warren, 2016) In this context, here is a quote from Zuber et al. (2000) in a paper dealing with flooding and collapse events in Polish salt mines.


“Catastrophic inflows to salt mines, though quite frequent, are seldom described in the literature, and consequently students of mining and mine managers remain, to a high degree, ignorant in this respect. Contrary to common opinion, inflows are seldom caused by unavoidable forces of nature. Though some errors were unavoidable in the past, modern geophysical methods are, most probably, quite sufficient to solve the majority of problems (e.g., to determine a close presence of the salt boundary). Detailed study of the recent catastrophic floods, which happened in Polish salt mines, shows that they usually occur, or have strong negative impacts, due to human errors. Most probably similar human errors caused catastrophic inflows to salt mines in other countries. It seems that a knowledge of the real history of catastrophes, better education of mine engineers and the application of modern geophysical methods could lead to the reduction of floods in salt mines.”

This article, the 4th of 5 in Salty Matters, focuses on the anthropogenic enhancement of salt dissolution, however, it discusses only a few of the many documented examples of problems that result from enhanced dissolution brought about by human activity. For a more comprehensive documentation of relevant case histories and an expanded discussion that includes mine collapse, brinefield subsidence and collapse and industrial accidents associated with salt cavity storage, the interested reader should refer to Chapters 7 and 13 in Warren (2016).


As wells as mine floods and mine losses, poorly monitored then abandoned brinefield and solution cavities can be areas with major environmental problems especially where old extraction wells are undocumented and unmonitored. Like areas of natural solution collapse; they can become zones of catastrophic ground failure. This is especially problematic if located near cities or towns (Tables 1, 2). Some of the most outstanding examples of how not to solution mine a resource and how not to control ground subsidence effects are to be found in east European countries that are still trying to deal with the environmental outcomes of being former satellite states of the Soviet Union. But caving problems have been tied also to mines and boreholes in the United States and Canada, where once again human error, greed or ignorance has created many of these problem structures (Table 1 and Figure 1).


Ocnele Mari Brinefield, Romania

SALROM, a government-owned company, solution mines Badenian (Miocene) halite in the Valcea Prefecture of Romania (Figure 2). Production from Field 2 was shut down on March 5, 1991, after significant earth vibrations were noted by SALROM workers. A subsequent sonar survey showed that poorly monitored brinefield leaching between 1971 and 1991 had created a gigantic merged cavern as salt pillars separating adjoining caverns were inadvertently dissolved (Figure 2); the upper parts of the captive boreholes 363, 364, 365, 366, 367 and 369 had merged into a common cavern. The cavern was filled with some 4.5 million cubic metres of brine, was less than a hundred metres below the landsurface, was more than 350 metres across and was overlain by loosely consolidated sandy marls (von Tryller, 2002; Zamfirescu et al., 2003). The cavern was overlain by a bowl of subsidence and, even though mining operations in the region of the cavern completely stopped in 1993, the ground above continued to subside to a maximum of 2.2 metres prior to the September 2001 collapse. In the period 1993 - 2001 the cavern continued to enlarge and the northern part of the cavity expanded by some 25-35 m (see inset in Figure 3 showing sonar surveys 1995 -2001).


The 1993 sonic survey of the cavern showed it was so large and shallow that its roof must ultimately collapse, predicting when was the unknown. The fear was that if it collapsed catastrophically, it could release a flood of at least a million cubic metres of brine. Brine could be released either over several hours (least damaging scenario) or instantly forming a wave of escaping water several metres high that would flood the nearby Sarat River valley for many kilometres downstream. There were 22 homes on top of the cavern that would be immediately affected; also at risk were the hundreds and perhaps thousands of residents in the area of the saltworks and river valley below, as well as the local ecology and the civil/industrial infrastructure. Ongoing brine delivery from other nearby operational SALROM caverns to the large Oltchem and Govora chemical plants would also be disrupted. When collapse did ultimately occur (twice in the period 2001 - 2004), each episode took place over a number of hours and so a catastrophic wave of water did not eventuate.

According to Solution Mining Research Institute, there was no good engineering solution to prevent the Ocnele cavern roof from collapsing. Prior to collapse, brine in the cavern exerted pressure against the roof helping to hold it up; removing even a small amount of brine would remove hydraulic pressure that could possibly trigger a catastrophic collapse. Nor was it practical to fill the cavern with sand and industrial wastes as suggested by the Romanian government. It would take too long and it was unsafe to place men and equipment on top of the still expanding cavern. Even if it could be done, only the areas directly below the injection wells would be filled. The best solution was to construct a dam as close to the cavern as possible, and then perhaps trigger a controlled collapse by pumping out the cavern brine.

A partial collapse of the cavern roof atop well 377 occurred on 12 September of 2001, the ensuing brine flood killed a child and injured an older man. The collapse began at 7 pm with brine spilling out of wells 365 and 367. Southward of well 377 a collapse cone some 10 metres across started to form and fill with brine. The cone continued to expand and fill with water until its southern lip was breached. Water spilled out of the cone and down the hill slope. The flow rate of the expelled flow reached a maximum of 17 m3/sec at 3 am on September 13th, with flow continuously exceeding 10 m3/sec for a period of more than 6 hours around that time. By 7 am flow was down to 4-5 m3/sec and by 7 pm, 24 hours after the flow began the flow rate was 0.4-0.5 m3/sec. Some 24 hours after the onset, roof collapse had formed a water-filled lake with an area of 2.4 ha (Figures 2, 3; Zamfirescu et al., 2003).


A second roof collapse occurred on July 13, 2004. Realitatea Romaneasca, Romania, reported that ground collapse occurred at 9:30 pm July 13, 2004, possibly triggered by heavy, recent rains. The wellhead of bore 365 was destroyed in this collapse, and many other well heads in Field 2 had been destroyed by ongoing subsidence in the period 2001-2004. This collapse was the culmination of a series of collapse-related events that began on Monday July 11. It was planned that a purpose-built earthen dam would contain the brine flood. But when the roof fall occurred at 9:30 pm, the dam was breached 30 minutes later by some 250,000 m3 of salt water. Flow rate through the breach reached a maximum of 6 m3/sec. Collapse did not occur until just after local authorities had evacuated people from 50 homes in the area around the cavern. Most of the brine forced out by the roof collapse escaped into the Sarat (Olt) River. The government attempted to dilute the effects of this flush of salt water by releasing fresh water into the river from nearby dams. Fortunately, unlike the 2001 event, there was no loss of life.


Induced collapse, Gellenoncourt saltworks, France

Gellenoncourt is one of three sites that exploit halite beds of the Lower Keuper in the eastern part of the Paris Basin. The deposits extend from Cezanne in the west to Nancy with a length of 250 km and a width of 50 to 70 km. Salt production utilising solution mining techniques is focused on three sites along the Meurthe river, which all lie immediately to the east of Nancy.

On March 4, 1998, a sinkhole more than 50 m across and 40 m deep formed atop the SG4 and SG5 brinefield caverns in the Gellenoncourt saltworks near Lorraine, France (Figure 4; Buffet, 1998). It was an induced collapse designed to prevent a possible uncontrolled future ground collapse. The problem started in 1967 with the beginning of the exploitation of Triassic salt layers in the Keuper Fm. In total the Keuper is more than 150 m thick with five salt layers at its base, passing up into variegated and poorly consolidated marls and sandstones and capped by the Dolomite du Beaumont. The top of the salt is some 220 m below the surface and divided into five beds numbered 1 to 5 from top to bottom, with the solution mining program designed to leach beds 1 through 3 in the region of SG4 and SG5 caverns (Figure 5). Five wells, SG1 to SG5, were joined using hydrofracturing in February 1967. Theoretically, the process was designed to leave a substantial salt pillow atop all the cavities and so separate the solution cavities from the overlying marls (Figure 5; 1967-1971). The SG4 and SG5 caverns unexpectedly joined in 1971. Brine injection to these two wells was stopped, but crossflowing brines flowing to the producing SG1 well continued to excavate these two caverns. By 1982 the salt cushion in the roof of the SG4-SG5 cavern had completely dissolved away, placing the cavity roof in direct contact with the base of the marls.


From 1982 until October 1992 there was no further upward growth of the cavern roof. Then a 25 m-thick section of the variegated marls in the roof broke free and fell to the cavern floor, leaving a large section of the cavity roof in direct contact with the brittle Dolomite de Beaumont. This stiff dolomite layer prevented any further immediate collapse of the roof and consequent propagation of the cavity to the surface. But continued growth of the roof span beneath the dolomite would mean a later, larger, perhaps catastrophic collapse. In 1995 the operator tried to induce a controlled collapse by placing a submerged pump in the cavity and pumping out brine to create an exposed upper face. But this didn’t work. The next approach was to further enlarge the roof span by injecting 300,000 m3 of freshwater into the cavity. Collapse occurred on March 4, 1998, forming a 50 m wide crater. To protect the surrounding countryside from any brineflood damage a dam was constructed to capture any brine overflow, but in the actual event it was not needed.

Retsof Mine, New York State, USA

The Retsof Mine collapse is perhaps one of the best documented examples of an operational mine being lost to dissolution features and consequent flooding, yet even here the exact causes of the mine loss are still argued. Was it because of the intersection of the expanding mine workings with a natural water-saturated salt dissolution and fracture system, or the insection of the mine workings with brine filled cavities formed by wild brining operations in the 1800s, or was it a result of mine roof instabilities related to a change in room and pillar sizes?

At the time it was operational, the 24 km2 area of subsurface workings in the AKZO-Retsof salt mine made it the largest underground salt mine in the USA, and the second largest salt mine in the world (Figure 6, 7).


Operational history

Retsof Mine started operating in 1885 after completion of the 3.7× 4.9-meter wide, 303.5-meter-deep Shaft #1. The mine claimed an initial 5,460-metric-tons per day hoist capacity (Goodman et al., 2009). Early main haulage ways were driven east and west while production headings were driven north (updip) for salt-tramming ease. Room heights in the 6-meter-thick salt bed were 2 to 4 meters, with salt left in both the floor and roof. Four-meter-high rooms were worked in two benches. Rooms were 9.2 meters wide and separated by 9.2-meter pillars. At that time there was no timbering, the mine was dry, mine air temperature was 17°C, and the mine was largely gas-free.

By 1958, the Retsof Mine was connected to the former Sterling Mine for ventilation and emergency escape purposes [Figure 6a; Gowan et al., 1999]. By the late 1960s, the mine had advanced beneath the modern Genesee River and Valley (Figure 6b). By the early 1970s, the Retsof Mine operators had installed an underground surge bin, fed by a new conveyor system, and the old rail-haulage system was eliminated. Mainline conveyors led to yard or panel belts feeding each mining section, where a Stamler feeder-breaker crushed salt delivered by diesel-powered Joy shuttle cars. In the early 1980s, the shuttle cars were gradually replaced by load-haul-dump vehicles (LHDs). In 1969, Netherlands-based Akzo Corporation acquired International Salt Company and operated the Retsof mine until its abandonment due to flooding in 1995.

During April 1975, an explosion occurred in the original Sterling B Shaft during efforts to control water inflow into the Retsof Mine from this abandoned and partially collapsed shaft (Goodman et al. 2009). The leaky B Shaft had not been used or maintained for years. By 1975, International Salt was concerned that freshwater inflow from the B Shaft could pose a salt dissolution, collapse, and flooding risk to the then-connected Retsof Mine. Removal of a partial shaft blockage of timber and rock debris was attempted as a means of regaining airflow needed to safely access, rehabilitate, and grout off the water inflow to the shaft and mine below. A maintenance crew attempted to dislodge the shaft obstruction by pushing a large boulder into the shaft that was to drop down and knock through the debris. A methane explosion occurred upon impact. The upward force of the explosion killed four people on the surface near the shaft collar and injured others. On November 19, 1990, a roof fall resulted in two fatalities. Deformation and fracture of roof salt can occur because of a concentration of stresses; i.e., punching of the roof by stiff pillars. After the fatalities, the mine tested smaller, yielding pillars to alleviate roof falls (Figure 6b). Positive test results led to the adoption of a yield-pillar design.

The Retsof mine was lost to water flooding in 1994-1995.Before abandonment, the mine had been in operation since 1885, exploiting the Silurian Salina Salt and prior to shut down was producing a little over 3 million tons of halite each year. At that time it supplied more than 50% of the total volume of salt used to de-ice roads across the United States.

Geology and hydrology in the vicinity of Retsof Mine

The Genesee Valley sediments preserve evidence of several complex geologic processes that include; (1) tectonic uplift of Palaeozoic sedimentary rocks and subsequent fluvial down cutting, (2) waxing and waning glacial events that drove erosion of bedrock and the subsequent deposition of as much as 750ft of glacial sediments; and (3) ongoing erosion and deposition by postglacial streams (Figure 7a; Yager, 2001; Young and Burr, 2006). The Genesee Valley spans through western New York north to south from Avon, NY to Dansville, NY, including the Canaseraga Creek up through its mergence with Genesee River. A detailed section from Palaeozoic rocks and younger have been recorded in the Genesee River Valley (Figure 7a, b); however, detailed analysis of glacial sediments and till are still somewhat scarce. The B6 salt bed (Retsof Bed) of the Vernon Formation was the salt unit extracted at the Retsof Mine (Figures 7b). Several other salt layers exist in the Salina Group both above and below the B6. These salt layers include two horizons in Unit D at the base of the Syracuse Formation approximately 50 m (160 feet) above the B6 salt level.

Quaternary-age sediment in the Genesee Valley consists mostly of unconsolidated glacial sediments ranging up to 750 feet thick. These sediments encompass gravel, sand, silt and clays that were deposited mostly during the middle and late Wisconsin deglaciation and filled the lower parts of the pre-existing glacial scour valley. End moraines consisting of glacial debris were deposited in lobes to the south of the slowly retreating glacier. As the glacier had scoured through the valley, carving out bedrock and accumulating sediment, steep-sided valley walls were cut and pro-glacial lakes formed. The glacial lake sediments are dominated by muds, but also include large boulders and cobbles carried to the lake depressions by glacial ice. Fluvial sediment from the Genesee River and Canaseraga Creek also drained into these glacial lakes. A final pro-glacial lake formed as the Fowlerville end moraine was deposited. The Fowlerville end moraine extends approximately 4.5 to 8 miles north of the Retsof collapse site (Figure 7a). The various glacial lakes and moraines disrupted the normal flow fluvial patterns of most local drainages and creeks in the valley. Alluvium is the uppermost layer of the surface and is variable in thickness throughout the valley, but normally ranges about fifty feet thick and is still being deposited across the Genesee River Valley floodplain (Yager, 2001).

The aquifer system is hosted within the glacial valley-fill and consists of three main aquifers separated by two confining layers. It is underlain by water-bearing zones in fractured Palaeozoic bedrock (Yager, 2001). The glacial aquifers are bounded laterally by the bedrock valley walls. The uppermost aquifer consists of alluvial sediments 20 to 60 ft thick (unit 1 in Figure 7b); the middle aquifer consists of glaciofluvial sand and gravel less than 10 ft thick (unit 3 in Figure 7b); and the lower aquifer consists of glaciofluvial sand and gravel about 25 ft thick overlying the bedrock valley floor (unit 5 in Figure 7b). These aquifers are separated by aquitards dominated by muds and clays (Units 2 and 4 in Figure 7b).

The now abandoned Retsof Mine lies 550 to 600 ft below the eroded valley floor (Figure 7b). Hence, the upper and middle aquifers are separated by an upper confining layer of lacustrine sediments and till as much as 250 ft thick, and the two confined aquifers are separated by a lower confining layer of undifferentiated glaciolacustrine sediments as much as 250 ft thick. The principal water-bearing zone in the bedrock overlying the mine consists of fractured carbonates and sands near the contact between the Onondaga and Bertie Limestones. The fractured aquifer that occurs at this level in the stratigraphy supplied a significant volume of the water that ultimately flooded the Retsof Mine. The glacial aquifers are hydraulically connected at the edges of the confining layers and in subcrop zones, where water-bearing zones in the bedrock intersect a fractured and karstified bedrock surface.

Ground water within the valley generally flowed northward and updip before the mine collapse (Yager, 2001). The hydraulic head distribution in the confined aquifers under natural (precollapse) conditions is assumed to have been similar to that in the upper aquifer before the collapse, but water levels in the confined aquifers were probably above the water table beneath the valley floor. Much of the ground water reservoired along the fractured Onondaga/Bertie Limestone contact also flowed northward to escape at the Bertie Limestone subcrop, now located in the valley north of the Fowlerville Moraine (Figure 7c).

Water influx tied to changes in room and pillar mining?

In 1993, ceiling falls began to occur in rooms in the deepest part of the Retsof mine near its southern boundary (Figure 6a; Yager et al., 2009). In response, the mine owner, AkzoNobel Salt Incorporated (ANSI), turned to an innovative “yielding pillar” mining technique that utilised many narrow (20 feet × 20 feet) pillars rather than few wide ones in the mined section (Figure 6b). Geotechnical analyses indicated that the resulting configuration would allow the salt pillars to slowly yield and create a “stress envelope” in the surrounding bedrock to support the entire mined room.

Closure monitoring was conducted in the yield-pillar test panels and the two full-scale panels during mining to measure panel behaviour and to see if the new design mitigated the floor and roof problems being experienced in the large pillar area of the mine (van Sambeek et al., 2000). Monitoring initially indicated that room closure rates were slightly greater than expected, but had an overall character (trend) of steadily decreasing rates, which is consistent with stable conditions. This trend changed dramatically to a rapid and unstable closure rates in the final weeks leading up to the inflow. The change in trend was initially obscured by fluctuating closure rates because salt extraction was occurring between the two yield-pillar panels as the monitored abutment pillar was isolated. Whereas the closure rates were expected to decrease after this mining was complete, they did not; in fact, they increased. This change in panel character later interpreted to indicate that a pressure surcharge existed or developed over two of the yield-pillar panels prior to the in- flow (Gowan et al., 1999).

 

Loss of roof stability and flooding

In November 1993, strain measurements in a yielding-pillar area within the mine indicated a larger than expected deformation of salt near the eastern wall of room 2 Yard South (Figure 6a, b). Mining in the area was halted as ceiling falls of salt continued during the next four months. On March 12, 1994, a magnitude 3.6 seismic event, caused by a large roof collapse, was detected by seismometers more than 300 miles away. Mine workers attempted to enter room 2 Yard South but found it was blocked by a pile of rock rubble within the formerly mined room and that saline water entering via fractures in the mine roof. Over the next several weeks, Akzo made concerted attempts to save the mine by pumping water out and drilling around the collapse area to inject cement grout so as to stabilise the collapsed room and prevent a further inflow of water. Meanwhile, unstable shale layers overlying room 2 Yard South sagged and collapsed to form a 300-foot-diameter zone of rock rubble that slowly propagated upward through overlying layers of shale (Figures 6b, 8a, b). This column of rock rubble is referred to as a rubble chimney.

The propagating rubble chimney eventually reached a layer of carbonate (limestone) rock that was strong enough to temporarily resist further collapse, stopping further the rubble chimney’s upward progression. At this point, the flow of water into the mine stabilised at about 5,500 gallons per minute. Water entering the mine was saline and probably a mixture of saline water from the shale and a prominent fracture zone aquifer within the Onondaga and Bertie Limestones (Figures 7c). By the end of March 1994, tons of cement grout had been injected into the mine and the rubble chimney through nearly 30 boreholes drilled in the collapse area, but these efforts failed to stem the rate of water flowing into the mine and the inflow was becoming increasingly less saline.


On April 6, 1994, the limestone rock layer collapsed, and 550 feet of unconsolidated sediments in the Genesee River valley quickly slumped downward into the resulting cavity, forming a sinkhole at the land surface, more than 15 feet deep and several hundred feet across (Figure 8, 9a b). The collapse of the limestone rock was like pulling the plug in a bathtub—it allowed groundwater from a fresh-water aquifer at the base of the unconsolidated glacial sediments (the lower confined aquifer (Figure10) to drain downwards through the rubble chimney and into the mine. By mid-April, a second collapse occurred in an adjacent room (11 Yard West; Figure 6b). On May 25, a drilling crew working above room 11 Yard West felt tremors and removed their drill rig, and themselves, just before this second sinkhole formed at the land surface. This one had a surface expression that was more than 50 feet deep and several hundred feet across (Figures 6a, 8a, 9a,b). The discharge from the aquifer through both rubble chimneys increased the flow of water into the mine to about 18,000 gallons per minute.

Water began to fill the southern end of the mine and then spread steadily northward, dissolving the bases of the salt pillars that supported the mine ceiling (Figure 6a). As the pillars gave way, the southern part of the mine began to collapse, causing the land surface above it to subside. The greatest subsidence (more than 15 feet) was beneath the two sinkholes, which altered the channel of Beards Creek, allowing surface water to fill the sinkholes. The surface water did not flow downward to the mine, however, because hundreds of feet of fine-grained sediments underlie the Genesee River valley. The instability also forced the closure of the U.S. Route 20A bridge over Beards Creek; the southern end of the bridge eventually subsided by 11 feet (Figure 9c, d). The bed of the Genesee River 1 mile north of the collapse areas subsided by as much as 5 feet and altered the pattern of sediment scour and deposition along a 1.5-mile reach downstream of Beards Creek.

Events indicating loss of mine

The eventual loss of the Retsof Salt Mine occurred in stages, driven first by “out of salt” roof breaches, followed by ongoing salt dissolution of the water-encased salt pillars in the flooded mine. It began in the early morning hours of March 12, 1994, with a magnitude 3.6 earthquake. The quake was caused by the catastrophic breakdown of a small mine pillar and panel section some 340 meters below the surface and was accompanied by the surface collapse of an area atop the mine that was some 180 by 180 meters across and 10 meters deep. This all occurred at the southern end of the mine near the town of Cuylerville. A month later, on April 18, an adjacent mine room collapsed to form a second collapse crater (Figure 6a, b) The initial March 12 collapse in the mine was accompanied by an inrush of brine and gas (methane) and by a sustained intense inflow of water at rates in excess of 70 m3/min, via the overlying now fractured limestone back (Gowan and Trader, 2000).

In a little more than a month, the two steep-sided circular collapse features, some 100 meters apart, had indented the landscape above the two collapsed mine rooms (Figures 6, 8, 9). The northernmost collapse feature, which was more than 200 meters across, included a central area that was about 60 meters wide and had subsided about 6 to 10 meters. The southernmost feature, which was about 270 meters in diameter, included a central area that was about 200 meters wide and had subsided about 20 meters (Figure 6b). Fractures extending up from the broken mine back created hydraulic connections between aquifers, which previously had been isolated from each and so provided new high volume flow routes for rapid migration of perched groundwaters into the mine level.

Water flooded the mine at rates that eventually exceeded 60,000 litres per minute and could not be controlled by pumping or in-mine grouting. By January 1996 the entire mine was flooded. Associated aquifer drawdown caused inadequate water supply to a number of local wells in the months following the collapse; the fall in the water table as ground waters drained into the mine in effect meant some water wells went dry (Figure 8c; Tepper et al., 1997).

Aside from the loss of the mine and its effect on the local economy, other immediate adverse effects included abandonment of four homes, damage to other homes (some as much as 1.5 kilometers from the sinkholes), the loss of a major highway and bridge, loss of water wells and prohibition of public access to the collapse area (Figure 9). Land subsidence, possibly related to compaction induced by aquifer drainage to the mine, even occurred near the town of Mt. Morris some 3 miles south-west of the collapse area. Longer term adverse effects are mostly related to increasing salinization of the lower parts of the Genessee Valley aquifer system in the vicinity of the mine (Figure 10; Yager, 2013).

 

What caused the loss of the mine?

Post-mortem examination of closure data from the two failed mine panels has been interpreted as indicating an anomalous buildup of fluid pressure above the panels in the period leading up to their collapse (Gowan et al., 1999). The initial influx of brine and gas following the first collapse coincided with the relief of this excess pressure.

Gowan and Trader (1999) argued for the existence of pre-collapse pressurised brine cavities and gas pools above the panels and related them to nineteenth-century solution mining operations. They document widespread natural gas and brine pools within Unit D of the Syracuse Formation approximately 160 ft above the mined horizon in the Retsof Mine. The satellite image also shows that collapse occurred in a pre-existing landscape low that defined the position of Beard Creek valley above the mine (Figure 6a). Brine accumulations likely formed in natural sinks, long before salt solution mining began in the valley. Salt in the shallow subsurface dissolved naturally, driven by the natural circulation and accumulation of meteoric waters along vertical discontinuities, which connected zones of dissolving salt to overlying fresh water aquifers (see Warren, 2016, Chapter 7 for a detailed documentation of this salt related hydrology and geomorphology).

Gowan and Trader (2003) argued that daylighting sinkholes had formed by the down-dropping of the bedrock and glacial sediments into pre-existing voids created by the dissolution of salt and the slaking of salt-bearing shale upon exposure to fresh water. It is likely that the extent of these brine filled voids was exacerbated by the “wild-brining” activities of salt solution miners in the 1800’s.

Nieto and Young (1998) argue that the transition to the yield pillar design was a contributing factor to the loss of mine roof integrity. Loss of mechanical integrity in the roof facilitated fracturing and the influx of water from anthropogenic “wild brine” cavities. The exact cause of the loss of roof integrity and subsequent mine flooding is still not clear. What is clear is that once the Retsof mine workings passed out of the salt mass, and into the adjacent non-salt strata, the likelihood of mine flooding greatly increased.

Even so, the loss of the Retsof salt mine to flooding was a total surprise to the operators (Van Sambeek et al., 2000). The mine had operated for 109 years with relatively minor and manageable incidents of structural instability, water inflow, and gas occurrences. A substantial database of geological information was also collected throughout the history of the mine. It was this relatively uneventful mine history and the rich technical database that provided support for pre-inflow opinions by mine staff that there was no significant potential for collapse and inundation of the mine. The Retsof collapse took place in a salt-glacial scour stratigraphy and hydrology near identical to that in the Cayuga Mine region.

 

Patience Lake Potash Mine flood

In the 1970s the Patience Lake potash mine operation, located on the eastern outskirts of Saskatoon, Canada, encountered open fractures tied to a natural collapse structure and was ultimately converted to a successful solution mining operation (Figure 11). Grouting managed to control the inflow and mining continued. Then, in January of 1986, the rate of water inflow began to increase dramatically from the same fractured interval (Figure 12; Gendzwill and Martin 1996).

At its worst, the fractures associated with the structure and cutting across the bedded ore zones were leaking 75 m3/min (680,000 bbl/day) of water into the mine. The water was traced back to the overlying Cretaceous Mannville and possibly the Duperow formations. Finally, in January 1987 the mine was abandoned. It took another six months for the mine to fill with water. Subsequent seismic shot over the offending structure suggested that the actual collapse wasn’t even penetrated; the mine had merely intersected a fracture within a marginal zone of partial collapse (Gendzwill and Martin 1996).

Part of the problem was that the water was undersaturated and quickly weakened pillars and supports, so compromising the structural integrity of the workings. The unexpected intersection of one simple fracture system resulted in the loss of a billion dollar conventional potash mine. Patience Lake mine now operates as a cryogenic solution mine by pumping warm KCl-rich brine from the flooded mine workings to the surface. Harvesting of the ponds takes place during winter after cryogenic precipitation of sylvite in at-surface potash ponds (Fig. 11).

 

Unlike the Patience Lake Mine flood, there was a similar episode of water inflow in the nearby Rocanville Potash Mine. But there a combination of grouting and bulkhead emplacement in succeeded in sealing off the inflow, thus saving the mine (see Warren 2016 for detail). Unlike Patience Lake, the brine from the breached structure in Rocanville was halite-saturated, so limiting the amount of dissolution damage in the mine walls. Different outcomes between the loss of the Patience Lake Mine and recovery from unexpected flooding in the Rocanville Mine likely reflects the difference between intersecting a natural brine-filled dissolution chimney that had made its way to the Cretaceous landsurface and is now overlain by a wide-draining set of aquifer sediments, versus crossing a blind dissolution chimney in a saline Devonian sediment surround that never broke out at the Cretaceous landsurface. Understanding the nature of the potential hydrological drainages and water source is a significant factor in controlling unexpected water during any salt mine expansion.


Lake Peigneur, Louisiana

Lake Peigneur is a natural water-filled solution doline that overlies the dissolving crest of the Jefferson Island Salt Dome Figure 13). The most recently risen part (salt spine) of the Jefferson Island stock crest, just west of the town of New Iberia, Louisiana, is now 250 m (800ft) higher than the adjacent flat-topped salt mass, which is also overlain by a cap rock. The boundary shear zone separating the spine from the less active portion of the crest contains a finer-grained “shale-rich” anomalous salt zone that had been penetrated in places by the former Jefferson Island mine workings. The known salt anomaly (BSZ) defined a limit to the extent of salt mining in the diapir, which was focused on extracting the purer salt within the Jefferson Island spine, in a mining scenario much like the fault shear anomaly, as mapped by Balk (1953), defined the extent of the workings at nearby Avery Island. The spine and its boundary “shear” zone are reflected in the topography of the Jefferson Island landscape, with a natural sub-circular solution lake, Lake Peigneur, created by the dissolving shallow crest of the most recently-active salt spine.

On November 20, 1980, one of the most spectacular sinkhole events associated with oilwell drilling occurred atop the Jefferson Island dome just west of New Iberia. Lake Peigneur disappeared as it drained into an underlying salt mine cavern and a collapse sinkhole, some 0.91 km2 in area, developed in the SE portion of the lake (Figure 13; Autin, 2002). In the 12 hours following the first intersection the underlying mine had flooded, and the lake was completely drained.

Drainage and collapse of the lake began when a Texaco oil rig, drilling from a pontoon in the lake, breached an unused section of the salt mine some 1000 feet (350 metres) below the lake floor (Figure 14a). Witnesses working below ground described how a wave of water instantly filled an old sump in the mine measuring some 200 ft across and 24 feet deep. The volume of floodwater engulfing the mine corridors couldn’t be drained by the available pumps. At the time of flooding the mine had four working levels and one projected future level. The shallowest was at 800 feet, it was the first mined level and had been exploited since 1922. The deepest part of the mine at the time of flooding was the approach rampways for a planned 1800 foot level. In 58 years of mine life, some 23-28 million m3 of salt had been extracted. Prompt reaction to the initial flood wave by mine staff allowed all 50 personnel, who were underground at the time, to escape without anything more than a few minor injuries.


The rapid flush of lake water into the mine, probably augmented by the drainage of natural solution cavities in the caprock below the lake floor, meant landslides and mudflows developed along the perimeter of the sinkhole, and that the lake was enlarged by 28 ha. The surface entry hole in the floor of Lake Peigneur quickly grew into a half-mile-wide crater. Eyewitnesses all agreed that the lake drained like a giant unplugged bathtub—taking with it trees, two oil rigs (worth more than $5 million), eleven barges, a tug boat and most of the Live Oak botanical gardens. It almost took local fisherman Leonce Viator Jr. as well. He was out fishing with his nephew Timmy on his fourteen-foot aluminium boat when the disaster struck. The water drained from the lake so quickly that the boat got stuck in the mud and they were able to walk away! The drained lake didn’t stay dry for long, within two days it was refilled to its normal level by Gulf of Mexico waters flowing backward into the lake depression through a connecting bayou (Delcambre Canal, aka Carline Bayou). But, since parts of the lake bottom had slumped into the sinkhole during the collapse, the final water level in some sections was higher than before relative to previous land features. It left one former lakefront house aslant under 12 feet of water.

Of course, an anthropogenically induced disaster like this attracted the lawyers like flies to a dead dingo. On 21 November 1980, the day after the disaster, Diamond Crystal Salt filed a suit against Texaco for an unspecified amount of damage. On 25 November, Texaco filed a countersuit against Diamond Crystal. The Live Oak Gardens sued both Diamond Crystal and Texaco. Months later, the State of Louisiana was brought into the suit since the incident occurred on state land. One woman sued Texaco and Wilson Brothers (the drillers) for $1.45 million for injuries (bruised ribs and an injured back) received while escaping from the salt mine. Less than a week before the scheduled trial, an out-of-court settlement was reached between the major players. Due to human error, related to a triangulation mistake when siting the drilling barge, Texaco and Wilson Brothers agreed to pay $32 million to Diamond Crystal and $12.1 million to the Live Oak Gardens.

An ongoing environmental catastrophe that was anticipated by environmental groups at the time of the accident never materialized. The lake quickly returned to its natural freshwater state, and with it the wildlife was largely un-affected. Nine of the barges eventually popped back up like corks (the drilling rigs and tug were never to be seen again). The torrent of water helped dredge Delcambre Canal so that it was two to four feet deeper. And of course, the former 1 metre deep Lake Peigneur was now 400 metres deep in the vicinity of the borehole!

Interestingly, the filling of the mine workings with water drastically slowed the rate of land subsidence atop the mine (Figure 14b). Measurements had been carried out between 1973 and 1983, some 7 years before the accident and continued for 2 years afterward (Thoms and Gerhle, 1994). Slowing reflects the post-accident reduction in the total pressure exerted on the roof of the mine to half its pre-accident levels. Prior to the accident, there was no hydrostatic pressure to alleviate some of the lithostatic pressure exerted by the weight of the overburden and so land subsidence above the mine workings was relatively rapid.

Although this incident is not directly related to any aspect of the salt mining operation and no human lives were lost (although three dogs perished), it clearly illustrates the speed of potential leakage following a breach in a cavern roof in any shallow storage facilities filled with low-density fluids. It also illustrates the usual cause of such disasters – human error in the form of a lack of due diligence, a lack of forward planning and a lack of communication between various private and government authorities. It also illustrates that filling a solution cavity with water slows the rate of subsidence atop a large salt cavity and that waters after the disturbance will return quietly to a state of density stratification.

The incident had wider resource implications as it detrimentally affected the profitability of other salt mines in the Five Islands region (Autin, 2002). Even as the legal and political battles at Lake Peigneur subsided, safe mining operations at the nearby Belle Isle salt mine came into contention with public perceptions questioning the structural integrity of the salt dome roof. Horizontal stress on the mineshaft near the level where the Louann Salt contacts the overlying Pleistocene Prairie Complex had caused some mine shaft deterioration. Broad ground subsidence over the mine area was well documented and monitored, as was near continuous ground water leakage into the mine workings. The Peigneur disaster meant an increased perception of continued difficulty with mine operations and an increased risk of catastrophic collapse was considered a distinct possibility. In 1985, a controlled flooding of the Belle Isle salt mine was completed as part of a safe closure plan.

Subsidence over the nearby Avery Island salt mine (operated by Cargill Salt) has been documented since 1986. This is oldest operating salt mine in the United States and has been in operation since the American Civil War, and after the Lake Peigneur disaster the mine underwent a major reconstruction and safety workover. Mine management and landowners did not publicly disclose the technical details of rates of subsidence, but field observations revealed the nature of the subsidence process. Subsidence along the mine edge coincided with a topographic saddle above an anomalous salt zone located inside the mined salt area, ground water had seeped into the mine, and there were a number of soil gas anomalies associated with the mine. Small bead-shaped sinkholes were initially noticed in the area in 1986, then over several years, a broad area of bowl-shaped subsidence and areas of gully erosion formed (Autin, 2002). Reconstruction has now stabilised this situation. Much of the subsidence on Avery Island was a natural process that occurs atop any shallow salt structure. Dating of middens and human artifacts around salt solution induced water-filled depressions atop the dome shows dissolution-induced subsidence is a natural process that extends back well beyond the 3,000 years of human occupation documented on the island.

Compared to the other salt domes of the Five Islands, Cote Blanche Island has benefited from a safe, stable salt mine operation throughout the mine life (Autin, 2002). Reasons for this success to date are possibly; (i) mining operations have not been conducted as long at Cote Blanche Island as other nearby domes, (ii) the Cote Blanche salt dome may have better natural structural integrity than other islands, thus allowing for greater mine stability (although it too has anomalous zones, a salt overhang, and other structural complexities), and (iii) the salt is surrounded by more clayey (impervious) sediments than the other Five Islands, perhaps allowing for lower rates of crossflow and greater hydrologic stability.

Haoud Berkaoui oilfield, Algeria

Located in the Sahara, some 32 km southwest of Ouargla City, the Haoud Berkaoui oilfield is an area of subsidence where numerous exploration and development wells were completed in the 1970s. Of these, the OKN32 and OKN32BIS wells have collapsed into an expanding collapse doline. It surfaced in October 1986 when a crater, some 200 metres across and 75 metres deep, formed (Morisseau, 2000). Today the solution cavity continues to expand and is now some 230 by 600 metres across. Its outward progression is continuing at a rate around 1 metre per year. The collapse is centred on two oil wells drilled in the late 1970s. The problem began in 1978, when the OKN32 oil exploration well was abandoned because of stability problems in Triassic salt at a depth around 650 metres. The target was an Ordovician sandstone at a depth of 2500m. Because of the technical problems associated with significant caverns at the level of the salt, the well was abandoned without casing being set in the salt, probably facilitating the escape of artesian waters (Morisseau, 2000; Bouraoui et al., 2012).


When it reached the 600m level, the well had already passed through 50 metres of anhydrite (220-270m depth) along with interbedded anhydrite clay and dolomite 270m -450 m depth). These are evaporite sediments that, in their undisturbed state, can act as aquicludes or aquitards to any access by unconfined phreatic groundwaters, although at such shallow depths the evaporite beds are likely also to be variably overprinted by active-phreatic dissolution processes. Prior to drilling it was thought that the Senonian halite extended continuously to a depth of 600 m in the well and in turn was underlain by 50 m of anhydrite (600-650m depth). Below the halite-anhydrite is an artesian aquifer (Albian) with a natural hydraulic head that is larger than the surface aquifer head by 2.5 MPa (Morisseau, 2000)

In 1979 a second well, OKN32BIS, was drilled located some 80 metres from the previous well and it successfully obtained its Ordovician target. But in March 1981, the lining of this second well broke, probably because of cavity collapse at a level around 550 metres (once again the regional level of salt) and the well was lost. Five years later, on October 1 1986, a large surface crater formed, centred on these two wells. The initial at-surface diameter was 200 metres and it was 75 metres deep, today it is even larger (Figure 15). Cavern diameter below the stope breakout at that time was estimated to be 300m and water flows to be around 2000 m3/hour.

Since the initial stope breakout, leaching has become progressively less effective and expansion rates have slowed (Morisseau, 2000). This is because cavern growth and water outflow flow are thought to take place preferentially near the centre of the collapse, which is now far from the collapsing cavern walls Dissolving salt may be salinising the crossflowing groundwaters, leading to undocumented, but possible, ongoing degradation of freshwater oases in the region. Continuing expansion is evidenced by the development of fresh centripetal cracks about the expanding collapse margin. Using MT-InSAR analysis, Bouraoui et al. (2012) documented ongoing subsidence near the crater, with an average subsidence of 4 mm per year (between 1992 and 2002). The zone of current zone of subsidence is centred on the OKN32 location and is slowly migrating north east.

As in the USA (see Table 2 and Warren, 2016, Chapter 13 for examples), the loss of these wells, in this case during their active life, emphasizes the need for caution when planning well abandonment in a salt bed, especially when it is highly likely that the salt is acting as a seal, or at least an aquitard, to a regional artesian system. The fact that the first well (OKN32) was lost during drilling argues that a natural breach or cavity was already present in the salt bed and perhaps was already stoping its way to the surface. It is also possible that the inappropriate completion and cementation of casing levels, prior to the well’s abandonment, may have accelerated cavity expansion. In hindsight, the loss of the second well some 5 years later was highly likely as was catastrophic cavity collapse 5 years after that; the OKN32BIS wellhead was situated only 80 metres from OKN32 and was dealing with the same cavern-ridden salt geology.

Summary

Regarding anthropogenically-enhanced salt karst, it is important to note that a salt mass used for storage has never failed catastrophically. Weak points tend to occur wherever “the outside has access to the inside,” so problems tend to be mostly where mine expansion breaches a salt edge (Warren, 2017). Likewise, almost all the problems related to well and cavity failure are more a matter of human error, either by negligence, or a lack of understanding by on-the-ground personnel. There is the same general rule of thumb when it comes to salt cavities and salt mines, and that is, “keep it in the salt!” Most failures and breaches occur when mining or solution leaching operations allow the cavity to contact the edge of the salt. There undersaturated water crossflows can exaggerate any uncontrolled dissolution problems. Often the salt edge is irregular due to natural dissolution and assumptions of flat or gently curved shapes to a salt edge are oversimplifications.

References

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Bouraoui, S., Z. Cakir, R. Bougdal, and M. Meghraoui, 2012, MT-InSAR monitoring of ground deformation around the Haoud Berkaoui sinkhole (SE Algeria): Geophysical Research Abstracts, EGU General Assembly 2012, held 22-27 April, 2012 in Vienna, Austria, v. 14, EGU2012-3344.

Buffet, A., 1998, The collapse of Compagnie des Salins SG4 and SG5 drilling: Proc. S.M.R.I. Fall Meeting, Rome,, p. 79-105.

Gendzwill, D., and N. Martin, 1996, Flooding and loss of the Patience Lake potash mine: CIM Bulletin, v. 89, p. 62-73.

Goodman, W. M., D. B. Plumeau, J. O. Voigt, and D. J. Gnage, 2009, The History of Room and Pillar Salt Mines in New York State,” in S. Zuoliang, ed., Proceedings, 9th International Symposium on Salt, Beijing, China, September 4–6, 2009, v. 2, Gold Wall Press, Beijing, China, p. 1239–1248.

Gowan, S. W., and S. M. Trader, 1999, Mine failure associated with a pressurized brine horizon: Retsof Salt Mine, western New York: Environmental & Engineering Geoscience, v. 6, p. 57-70.

Gowan, S. W., and S. M. Trader, 2003, Mechanism of sinkhole formation in glacial sediments above Retsof Salt Mine, Western New York, in K. S. N. Johnson, J. T. , ed., Evaporite karst and engineering/environmental problems in the United States: Norman, Oklahoma Geological Survey Circular 109, p. 321-336.

Morisseau, J. M., 2000, Uncontrolled leaching of salt layer in an oil field in Algeria: Proc. S.M.R.I. Fall Meeting Technical Session, San Antonio, p. 330-333.

Nieto, A., and R. A. Young, 1998, Retsof Salt Mine Collapse and Aquifer Dewatering, Genesee Valley , Livingston County , NY, in J. Borchers, ed., Poland Symposium Volume: Land Subsidence, Spec. Pub. 8, Assoc. Engineering Geologists, p. 309-325.

Payment, K. A., 2000, Loss of the Retsof salt mine: legal analysis of liability issues, in R. M. Geertmann, ed., Proc. 8th World Salt Symp., Salt 2000, The Hague, v. 1: Amsterdam, Elsevier, p. 399-404.

Tepper, D. H., W. H. Kappel, T. S. Miller, and J. H. WilliaMS, 1997, Hydrogeologic effects of flooding in the partially collapsed Retsof salt mine, Livingston County, New York: US Geol. Survey Open File Report, v. 97-47, p. 36-37.

Thoms, R. L., 2000, Subsidence and sinkhole development over salt caverns: An introduction to the technology of solution mining; Spring 2000 Technical Class, p. 127-141.

Thoms, R. L., and R. M. Gehle, 1994, Analysis of a Solidified Waste Disposal Cavern in Gulf Coast Salt Dome: SMRI Fall Mtg. (1994) 637.

Thoms, R. L., and R. M. Gehle, 2000b, Winnfield mine flooding and collapse event of 1965: Proc. S.M.R.I. Fall Meeting Technical Session, San Antonio, p. 262-274.

Van Sambeek, L. L., S. W. Gowan, and K. A. Payment, 2000, Loss of the Retsof Mine: Engineering Analysis: Proceedings, 8th World Salt Symposium, The Hague, The Netherlands, May 7–11, R. M. Geertman (ed.), Elsevier Science Publishers B.V., Amsterdam, The Netherlands, pp. 411–416.

Von Tryller, H., 2002, The Cavern Field No. 11 in Ocnele Mari - History, Present and Future: Solution Mining Research Institute Proceedings, Spring Meeting, 28 April 1 May, 2002, Banff, Canada, p. 10 pp.

Warren, J. K., 2016, Evaporites: A compendium (ISBN 978-3-319-13511-3): Berlin, Springer, 1854 p.

Warren, J. K., 2017, Salt usually seals, but sometimes leaks: Implications for mine and cavern stabilities in the short and long term: Earth-Science Reviews, v. 165, p. 302-341.

Yager, R. M., 2013, Environmental Consequences of the Retsof Salt Mine Roof Collapse, US Geological survey Open File Report 2013–1174, 10 p.

Yager, R. M., T. S. Miller, and W. M. Kappel, 2001, Simulated effects of 1994 salt-mine collapse on ground-water flow and land subsidence in a glacial aquifer system, Livingston County, New York: US Geological Survey Professional Paper, p. 1-80.

Yager, R. M., P. E. Misut, C. D. Langevin, and D. L. Parkhurst, 2009, Brine Migration from a Flooded Salt Mine in the Genesee Valley, Livingston County, New York: Geochemical Modeling and Simulation of Variable-Density Flow, USGS Professional Paper 1767, 59 p.

Young, R. A., and G. S. Burr, 2006, Middle Wisconsin glaciation in the Genesee Valley, NY: A stratigraphic record contemporaneous with Heinrich Event, H4: Geomorphology, v. 75, p. 226-247.

Zamfirescu, F., M. Mocuta, T. Constantinecu, E. Medves, and A. Danchiv, 2003, The main causes of a geomechanical accident of brine caverns at field II of Ocnele Mari - Romania: RMZ - Materials and Geoenvironment, v. 50, p. 431-434.

Zuber, A., J. Grabczak, and A. Garlicki, 2000, Catastrophic and dangerous inflows to salt mines in Poland as related to the origin of water determined by isotope methods: Environmental Geology, v. 39, p. 299-311.



 

 


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