Salty Matters

The Blog is written by me, John Warren. Once every three or four weeks or so I will post an article or two on an evaporite topic that has piqued my interest. On the Saltwork Publications webpage (under "the Works") there is a growing library of pdfs and epubs based on these blogs. These articles on the website have much higher resolution extractable graphics in than in the blog. There is also a link to this set of pdfs and epubs on the home page (www.saltworkconsultants.com).

Volatile evaporite interactions with magma Part 1 of 3: Indications of hydrated salts?

John Warren - Sunday, February 10, 2019

Introduction

Direct and indirect interactions between magma and evaporites at a regional scale are neither well documented, nor well understood. Mostly, this is because little or no salt remains once the high-temperature interactions have run their course; instead, there is a suite of indirect geochemical and indicator-mineral assemblages (Warren, 2016). Aside from the presence of what can be ambiguous indicator suites, some hard-rock geologists with a career working in igneous and metamorphic terranes may not be well versed in textures indicative of the former presence of sedimentary evaporites, nor their varying volatility, nor their meta-evaporitic and meta-igneous siblings.

The term pyrometasomatic encompasses some, but not all, of the types of salt-magma interaction and reactions that occur when evaporites and molten magmas of different types are nearby. Styles of evaporites interactions with magma are a spectrum, with two endmember situations; 1) orthomagmatic (salt-assimilative and internal to the magma), and 2) paramagmatic (salt-interactive and external to the magma). Both encompass outcomes that can include a variety of substantial ore deposits (Warren, 2016; Chapter 16). Only in situations where igneous sills and dykes have intruded salt masses, with contacts preserved, can direct effects of magma-salt interaction be documented. Even then, determining the timing of the evaporite igneous interaction can be problematic; one must ask if the chemistry and texture indicate, 1) syn-igneous emplacement, or 2) post-emplacement alteration and deeply circulating groundwater flushing, or 3) a combination.

Orthomagmatic and paramagmatic evaporite associations are distinct from occurrences of primary igneous/magmatic anhydrites, which precipitate from sulphate-saturated melts. Igneous anhydrite forms independently of any sedimentary evaporite assimilation, as seen, for example, in anhydrite crystals crystallised in trachyandesitic pumice erupted from El Chichón Volcano in 1982, or in dacitic pumices erupted from Mount Pinatubo in 1991 and in acidic lavas in the Yanacocha district of northern Peru (Luhr et al., 2008; Chambefort et al., 2008). These evaporite assimilations are also distinct from fumarolic anhydrite, which precipitates where groundwaters and sulphur-bearing magmatic fluids interact, as on Usu Volcano, Hokkaido, and many central American and Andean volcanoes such as El Laco (Zimbelman et al., 2005). Likewise, they are distinct from the anhydrite precipitates (white smokers) in and below submarine vents across numerous mid-oceanic ridges (Humphris et al., 1995). See Warren 2016 (Chapter 16) for more geological detail on these non-evaporite-igneous anhydrite occurrences.

Cooking with salt (thermal decomposition of hydrated versus non-hydrated salts)

Perhaps the most critical factor controlling the local intensity of magmatic interaction with an evaporitic country rock is whether or not the sedimentary evaporite assemblage, in proximity to an igneous heat source, contains abundant hydrated salts, such as gypsum, polyhalite or carnallite. Hydrated evaporite salts, when interacting with the igneous realm, are highly volatile and likely to decompose. They tend to release their water of crystallisation at temperatures many hundreds of degrees below the melting points of their anhydrous counterparts (Table 1).


In contrast, anhydrous salts, such as halite beds intruded by igneous dykes or sills, are much less reactive. At a local scale (measured in metres) with respect to an intrasalt-igneous interaction, there are a number of documented thermally-driven alteration styles, typically created by the intrusion of dolerite dykes and sills into cooler halite, or the outflow of extrusive igneous flows over cooler halite beds (Knipping and Herrmann, 1985; 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, typically halite or anhydrite, to create narrow but distinct heat and mobile fluid-release envelopes(Figure 1), also reflected in the resulting recrystallised inclusion-modified salt textures (Figure 2).


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 (brine)-inclusion migration. This is evidenced by the disappearance of chevron structures and consequent formation of clear (sparry) recrystallised halite, with a new set of higher-temperature brine inclusions located at intercrystal or polyhedral intersections. Such a migration envelope is documented in bedded Cambrian halites intruded by end-Permian dolerite dykes in the Tunguska region of Siberia (Figure 2; Grishina et al., 1992). There, 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 1).

Four inclusion type associations were found in halite as a function of the ratio of the distance of the sample from the intrusion contact (d) to the thickness of the intrusion (h), i.e. d/h (Figure 2). Chevron structures with aqueous inclusions progressively disappear as d/h decreases; the disappearance of chevrons occurs at greater distances above than below the intrusive sill. At d/h < 5 above the sill, a low-density CO2 vapour phase appears in brine inclusions, at d/h < 2 H2S-bearing liquid-CO2 inclusions appear, sometimes associated with carbonaceous material and orthorhombic S8, and for d/h < 0.9, CaCl2, CaCl2.KCl and nCaCl2.n MgCl2 solids occur in association with free water and liquid CO2 inclusions, with H2S, SCO, and Sg. The d/h values marking the transitions outlined above are lower below the sills than above. The water content of the inclusions progressively decreases on approaching the sills, whereas their CO2 content and density increase. Carnallite, sylvite and calcium chloride can occur as solid inclusions in the two associations nearest to the sill for d/h<2. Carnallite and sylvite occur as daughter minerals in brine inclusions. The presence of carbon dioxide is taken to indicate fluid circulation and dissolution/recrystallisation phenomena induced by the basalt intrusions. The origin of carbon dioxide is likely related to carbonate dissolution during magmatism (see Salty Matters, Oct 31, 2016).


In some shallow locations, relatively rapid magma emplacement can lead to linear breakout trends outlined by phreatomagmatic or phreatic explosion craters. Such phreatic explosion craters have been imaged on the Tertiary seafloor horizons in parts of the North Sea (Figure 3; Wall et al., 2010). The dykes were emplaced into Paleozoic and Mesozoic sediments and have a common upper termination in Early Tertiary sediments. The dykes are part of the British Tertiary volcanic province emplaced some 58 Ma. These dykes are characterised by a narrow 0.5–2 km wide vertical disturbance of seismic reflections that have linear plan view geometry. Negative magnetic anomalies directly align with the vertical seismic disturbance zones and indicate the presence of underlying igneous material. Linear coalesced collapse craters are found above the dykes. The collapse craters formed above the dyke due to the release of volatiles at the dyke tip and resulting gaseous expansion and subsequent volume loss. According to Wall et al. (2010), the larger craters likely formed due to explosive phreatomagmatic interaction between magma and pore water. The linearly aligned collapse craters can be considered an Earth analogue to Martian pit chain craters.

A phreatic eruption, also called a phreatic explosion, ultravulcanian eruption or steam-blast eruption, occurs when magma heats ground or surface water and is a separate but related occurrence to a phreatomagmatic eruption. A phreatomagmatic deposit typically contains solid inclusions of magmatic (igneous) material, whereas debris tied to a phreatic deposit does not, but ties to the effects of juvenile and deeply circulated hydrothermal waters. Extreme temperatures associated with an emplaced magma (anywhere from 500 to 1,170 °C) can cause a near-instantaneous phase change to steam, so forming a phreatomagmatic deposit. That is, rapid heating results in an intense explosion made up of steam, water, ash, rock, and volcanic bombs. During the eruption of Mount St. Helens, hundreds of steam explosions preceded the1980 Plinian eruption of the volcano core. Many authors argue a less intense geothermal event results in a mud volcano, but there are many other active mud volcanoes worldwide that tie to compactional overpressure unrelated to any magma emplacement (Warren et al., 2011). As the published interpretation of aligned phreatic breakout structures illustrated in Figure 3 is based on seismic without well control, the explosion mechanism may be solely phreatic heating or phreatomagmatic.


Deposits of phreatic eruptions (as contrasted with a phreatomagmatic eruption) typically include steam and rock fragments without the inclusion of fragments derived from liquid magma, lava or volcanic ash. The temperature of the phreatic fragments can range from cool to incandescent. So if molten magma is present, the resulting explosive debris deposit is typically classified as a phreatomagmatic eruption. These eruptions can create broad, low-relief craters called maars. In contrast, phreatic explosions lack debris derived from molten (igneous) material, but emplacement can be accompanied by carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulfide gas emissions. CO2 can asphyxiate at sufficient concentration; H2S is a broad spectrum poison. A 1979 phreatic eruption on the island of Java killed 140 people, most of whom were overcome by poisonous gases. Phreatic eruptions, even if the deposit lacks igneous rock fragments, are typically classed as a type of volcanic eruptions because a phreatic eruption can force juvenile fluids to the surface. But when a phreatic explosion is related to an igneous feature intersecting an evaporite bed, the resultant textures show a contrast between heating of anhydrous and hydrous salts


Hydrous salt interactions in Germany

Textures created by an igneous intrusion into a variably-hydrated evaporite succession can be studied in the dyke-and sill-intruded halite levels exposed in the walls of potash mines of the Werra-Fulda district of Germany (Figure 4; Steinmann et al., 1999; Schofield et al., 2014). There, the Permian Zechstein salt series contains two important potash salt horizons (2-10m thick), which are mined at a depths ≈ 800 m, from within a 400m thick halite host (Figure 4a). In the later Tertiary, basaltic melts intruded these Zechstein evaporites, but it seems only a few dykes reached the Miocene landsurface. The basaltic melt ties to regional volcanic activity, some 10 to 25 Ma. Basalts exposed in the halite-dominant portions of the mine walls are typically subvertical dykes, rather than sills. The basaltic intervals intersect the salt over zones up to several kilometres wide (Figure 4b). However, correlations of individual dyke swarms, either between different mines, or between surface and subsurface outcrops is difficult.


From a paleogeographic perspective, the Werra-Fulda Basin is situated in a southern embayment of the European Zechstein Basin. It contains cyclic evaporites of the Werra Formation (Z1). In the Neuhof area, the evaporites of the Zechstein are underlain by siliciclastic rocks of the Permian Rotliegend interval. The higher Zechstein-cycles (Z2 – Z7), on top of the Werra Formation, consist of a siliciclastic succession with intercalated limestone and anhydrite layers (Strauch et al., 2018; Beer and Barnasch, 2018). The Werra Formation is dominated by rock salt with a thickness up to 300 m.

Two potash seams (Seam Hessen and Seam Thüringen) separate the rock salt of the Werra Formation into three distinct units (Figure 4b). Lower, Middle and Upper Werra rock salt). Seam Hessen mainly consists of hard salt (kieserite, sylvite, halite and anhydrite). It is overlain by several, potash mineral-bearing horizons which show a strong vertical and lateral heterogeneity and consist of kieserite, sylvite, carnallite, halite and anhydrite. Internally, three separate units are identified within the potash Seam Hessen (Figure 4). The “Wurmsalz”, a hard salt with up to four strongly folded anhydritic clay bands represents the lower part of Seam Hessen. The middle part consists of massive, kieserite-rich hard salt with abundant sylvite lenses (“Flockensalz”). The “Bändersalz”, a banded hard salt which is typically intercalated with brownish, halitic layers occurs in the upper part of Seam Hessen. Potash Seam Thüringen usually occurs around 50 m below Seam Hessen. Its lower part is dominated by a well-bedded hard salt with intercalated rock salt. Its upper part consists of a variety of rock types including carnallite, sylvite and hard salt.

In the Fulda region the thermally-driven release of water of crystallisation within particular Zechstein salt beds intersecting igneous dykes creates thixotropic or subsurface “peperite” textures in hydrated carnallitite ore 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 horizons in the salt mass, wherever hydrated salt layers were intersected (Figure 5b verses 5c). In contrast, dyke and sill margins are much sharper and narrower in zones of contact with anhydrous salt intervals (Figure 5a, d; Schofield et al., 2014).

Accordingly, away from the immediate vicinity of the direct thermal aureole, heated and overpressured dehydration waters can enter a former Zechstein carnallite halite bed, and drive the creation of extensive soft sediment deformation and peperite textures in the previous hydrated layer (Figure 5c, d). Mineralogically, sylvite and coarse recrystallised halite dominate the salt fraction in the peperite intervals/beds. These deformed beds formed within a hydrated salt bed and so differ from the conventional notion of volcanic peperites indicating water-saturated sediment interactions with very shallow dyke or sill emplacements.

Sylvite in these altered zones is a form of dehydrated carnallite, not a primary-textured salt. In the Fulda region, such altered zones and deformed units can extend along former carnallite layers to tens or even a hundred or more metres from the dyke feeder. Ultimately, the deformed potash bed passes laterally out into the unaltered bed, which can retain abundant inclusion-rich primary chevron halite and carnallite (Figure 5c versus 5d). That is, nearer the basalt dyke, the carnallite is transformed mainly into inclusion-poor halite and sylvite, the result of recrystallisation combined with incongruent flushing of warm saline fluids mobilised from the hydrated carnallite crystal lattice as it was heated and decomposed in response to nearby dyke emplacement. During such Miocene salt alteration/thermal metamorphism in the Fulda region, NaCl-rich diagenetic and juvenile fluids were mixed with fluids originating from thermally-mobilised crystallisation water in the carnallite as it converted to sylvite.

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 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.

Worldwide, igneous 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 5b, c) 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 (Warren, 2016). The first alteration of the hydrated salt layer is a form of mineral alteration and recrystallisation in response to a pulse of released water/steam as dyke-driven heating forces the dehydration of hydrated salt layers. The second alteration is often folding and fluid-like disaggregation of the former, now dehydrated, layer in response to the mechanical strength contrast at a hydrated-nonhydrated salt-bed contact (Warren, 2016).

Surface expression of hydrated bedded salts interacting with magma in Dallol, Ethiopia

Local potash ores typify thermal sump depressions in the Dallol and Musley areas (Figure 6a, b, c, 7) where a similar set of subsurface destabilisation processes occurred when rising magma reached the levels of hydrated salts (kainite and carnallite beds) in the Houston Formation of the Danakhil depression fill (see Warren 2016 and Bastow et al. 2018 for more detailed discussion of the potash stratigraphy). To attain these hydrated salt levels the rising dyke swarm had passed relatively passively through the Lower Rocksalt Formation (Salty Matters, April 29, 2015). Emplacement of the magma/dykes into hydrated evaporites below the vicinity of what is now the Dallol Mound would have mobilised and deformed the hydrated potash salt level, converting carnallite to sylvite, kainite to bischofite and lesser kieserite, as well as creating widespread cavities filled with rising pressured volatiles carried by MgCl and KCl brines. Pressurisacreation of a cavernous network filled with volatiles at the level of the Houston Formation would have aided in forming the four-way dip closure now seen on the exposed and eroding salt beds that make up much of the Dallol Mound surface.


Once these hydrothermal cavities dissolved and breached the way to surface, the feeder brines cool and precipitate prograde salts such as halite, sylvite and bischofite. Such destabilisation has likely accommodated the emplacement of a basaltic sill at the level of the potash salts, in turn driving the uplift of the lake beds above this region outlined by the centripetal dips of the Dallol Mound. Mound-related uplift and hydrothermal activity then stimulate the formation of natural areas of ground collapse, sulphurous and acidic springs and fumaroles, along with the creation of water-filled chimneys and doline sags, filling with various hydrothermal salts, in the vicinity of the volcanic mound  (Figure 6).

That is this type of potash in the Dallol Mound region is hydrothermally reworked from the uplifted equivalents of the Houston Formation. Even today this hydrology is precipitating carnallitite (associated with bischofite and minor kieserite) in various hydrothermal brine pools atop and around the Dallol Mound, such as the carnallite-dominant Crescent deposit (Figure 7). These hydrothermal salts owe their origins to daylighting of pressurised fluid systems and cavities.


The last pressurised phreatic explosion crater formed in 1926. They were created by the volatile products of hydrated salt layers (Houston Fm) where these salts had come into contact with thermal aureoles or actual lithologies of newly emplaced dykes that had penetrated the underlying halite section. Volcanic rock fragments and other igneous debris have yet to make it to the surface in the Dallol Mound region, although active volcanic mounds and flows do cover the saltflat surface tens of kilometres to the south (Erte Alle ) and north. Based on the analogy exposed within the Zechstein-hosted potash mines of the Fulda region of Germany, it is likely that as well as creating at-surface brine pools, this hydrothermal dyke-related hydrology locally converts most subsurface carnallitite to a disturbed sylvinite bed at the level of contact with the Houston Fm.

Implications

It seems a "one-size-fits-all" model does not characterise magmatic interactions with massively bedded evaporites. Instead, there is a mineralogical control to the intensity of the interaction and the depth of thermal influence of recrystallisation and mobilisation textures. When a dyke-swarm intersects halite or anhydrite the thermally-driven recrystallisation and fluid migration halo is more limited, as outlined in Figure 1 and Figure 5a, d.

In contrast, when a dyke swarm intersects an interval containing hydrous salts such kainite, carnallite or gypsum, the heating drives the expulsion of the bound-water at decomposition temperatures much lower than the salts melting point (Table 1). Such hydrous-salt intervals devolatise, fluidise and flow, with the effects of the heating halo extending much further away from the heat source, driven in part by steam-driven hydrofracturing. On cooling, the resulting mineralogy in the highly-deformed bed is dominated by the anhydrous form of the devolatised salt, as in the sylvite unit after carnallite as seen in potash seams adjacent to dykes in the Fulda Region (Figures 5b, c).

Closer in to the heat source, the basalt that has moved in along the hydrous potash beds show abundant peperite textures (Figure 5c; Schofield et al., 2014). Actually, this is a unique form of peperite that is tied to beds of hydrous evaporite. It forms outside the usual scenario envisaged for peperite whereby molten igneous material interacts with wet sediment, with the water in the wet sediment held in interparticle pores.

The classic definition of a peperite is that it is a "genetic term applied to a rock formed essentially in situ by disintegration of magma intruding and mingling with unconsolidated or poorly consolidated, typically wet sediments. The term also refers to similar mixtures generated by the same processes operating at the contacts of lavas and other hot volcaniclastic deposits with such sediments" (Skilling et al. 2002).

In the case of the bedded hydrous salt intervals, before the intrusion of the igneous heat source, there was little to no free water, other than occasional brine inclusions in associated halite chevrons. What makes these hydrous-salt peperites interesting is that it is the igneous heating drives a mineralogic transformation in the hydrous salts that makes the formerly "dry" salt bed become "wet" sediment.

Before our work in the Fulda region (Schofield et al., 2014), the nature of igneous interactions with evaporites was understood to be mainly that documented by studies in areas with intrusives interacting with thick anhydrous halite and anhydrite beds. The heating haloes were seen as driving recrystallisation and brine migration over limited lateral distances of a few metres. However, the potash seam interactions in the Fulda region show this alteration distance can be much greater (hundreds of metres) id hydrous salt layers are heated.

The surface geology in the Dallol Mound region of Ethiopia shows an even more impressive set of igneous dyke hydrated salt interactions (Warren, 2016). There the potash interval known as the Houston Formation is a tens-of-metres thick section of hydrated salts below the upper halite unit and atop the lower halite. When the rising igneous dyke swarm rose to the level of Houston Formation, it drove a broad linear devolatisation zone in the dyke-heated alteration halo. This, in turn, forced the formation of the closed anticlinal uplift structure that is the Dallol mound. The release of MgCl2 during volatisation also explains phreatic breakout features that are outlined by at-surface collapse dolines with their hot (104-108°C) brine lakes and unusual bischofite (MgCl2) precipitates. Likewise, the same set of processes explains the occurrences of metres to tens of metres thick bischofite intervals that are intersected in cores in some of the potash exploration wells in the vicinity of Dallol Mound (pers. obs). These are likely cavity fill deposits formed as a byproduct of kainite and carnallite devolatisation sourced at the level of Houston Formation.

This set of more mobile brine fluid escape features has implications for nuclear waste storage in halite successions where a storage cavity may be in proximity to an interval of hydrous evaporite salts. Halite-hosted purpose-built caverns in thick evaporite intervals are one of the safest places in the world to store waste but perhaps not in parts of the salt succession that entrain beds of hydrous salts such as carnallite or kainite (Warren, 2017).

References

Bastow, I. D., A. D. Booth, G. Corti, D. Keir, C. Magee, C. A.-L. Jackson, J. Warren, J. Wilkinson, and M. Lascialfari, 2018, The development of late-stage continental breakup: Seismic reflection and borehole evidence from the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia: Tectonics, v. 37.

Beer, W., and L. Barnasch, in press, Werra-Fulda-Becken, SDGG- Monography.

Chambefort, I., J. H. Dilles, and A. J. R. Kent, 2008, Anhydrite-bearing andesite and dacite as a source for sulfur in magmatic-hydrothermal mineral deposits: Geology, v. 36, p. 719-722.

Grishina, S., J. Dubessy, A. Kontorovich, and J. Pironon, 1992, Inclusions in salt beds resulting from thermal metamorphism by dolerite sills (eastern Siberia, Russia): European Journal of Mineralogy, v. 4, p. 1187-1202.

Grishina, S., J. Pironon, M. Mazurov, S. Goryainov, A. Pustilnikov, G. Fonderflaas, and A. Guerci, 1998, Organic inclusions in salt - Part 3 - Oil and gas inclusions in Cambrian evaporite deposits from east Siberia - A contribution to the understanding of nitrogen generation in evaporite: Organic Geochemistry, v. 28, p. 297-310.

Gutsche, A., 1988, Mineralreaktionen und Stotransporte an einem Kontakt Basalt-Hartsalz in der Werra-Folge des Werkes Hattorf: Unpubl. diploma thesis, thesis, Georg-August-Universita, Gottingen.

Humphris, S. E., P. M. Herzig, D. J. Miller, J. C. Alt, K. Becker, D. Brown, G. Brugmann, H. Chiba, Y. Fouquet, J. B. Gemmell, G. G., M. D. Hannington, N. G. Holm, J. J. Honnorez, G. J. Iturrino, R. Knott, R. Ludwig, K. Nakamura, S. Petersen, A. L. Reysenbach, P. A. Rona, S. Smith, A. A. Sturz, M. K. Tivey, and X. Zhao, 1995, The internal structure of an active sea-floor massive sulphide deposit: Nature, v. 377, p. 713-716.

Knipping, B., 1989, Basalt intrusions in evaporites: Lecture Notes in Earth Sciences (Springer-Verlag), v. 24, p. 132 pp.

Knipping, B., and A. G. Hermann, 1985, Mineralreaktionen und Stoff transporte an einem Kontakt Basalt-Carnallitit im Kalisalzhorizont Thüringen der Werra-Serie des Zechsteins: Kali und Steinsalz, v. 9, p. 111-124.

Luhr, J. F., 2008, Primary igneous anhydrite: Progress since its recognition in the 1982 El ChichÛn trachyandesite: Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, v. 175, p. 394-407.

Schofield, N., I. Alsop, J. Warren, J. R. Underhill, R. Lehné, W. Beer, and V. Lukas, 2014, Mobilizing salt: Magma-salt interactions: Geology, v. 42, p. 599-602.

Skilling, I. P., J. D. L. White, and J. McPhie, 2002, Peperite: a review of magma–sediment mingling: Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, v. 114, p. 1-17.

Steinmann, M., P. Stille, W. Bernotat, and B. Knipping, 1999, The corrosion of basaltic dykes in evaporites: Ar-Sr-Nd isotope and rare earth elements evidence: Chemical Geology, v. 153, p. 259-279.

Strauch, B., M. Zimmer, A. Zirkler, S. Höntzsch, and A. M. Schleicher, 2018, The influence of gas and humidity on the mineralogy of various salt compositions – implications for natural and technical caverns: Advances in Geoscience, v. 45, p. 227-233.

Wall, M., J. Cartwright, R. Davies, and A. McGrandle, 2010, 3D seismic imaging of a Tertiary Dyke Swarm in the Southern North Sea, UK: Basin Research, v. 22, p. 181-194.

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.

Warren, J. K., A. Cheung, and I. Cartwright, 2011, Organic Geochemical, Isotopic and Seismic Indicators of Fluid Flow in Pressurized Growth Anticlines and Mud Volcanoes in Modern Deepwater Slope and Rise Sediments of Offshore Brunei Darussalam; Implications for hydrocarbon exploration in other mud and salt diapir provinces (Chapter 10), in L. J. Wood, ed., Shale Tectonics, v. 93: Tulsa OK, AAPG Memoir 93 (Proceedings of Hedberg Conference), p. 163-196.

Zimbelman, D. R., R. O. Rye, and G. N. Breit, 2005, Origin of secondary sulfate minerals on active andesitic stratovolcanoes: Chemical Geology, v. 215, p. 37-60.

 

Salt as a Fluid Seal: Article 4 of 4: When and where it leaks - Implications for waste storage

John Warren - Thursday, March 24, 2016

 

In the three preceding articles on salt leakage, we have seen that most subsurface salt in the diagenetic realm is a highly efficient seal that holds back large volumes of hydrocarbons in salt basins worldwide (Article 3). When salt does leak or transmit fluid, it does so in one of two ways: 1) by the entry of undersaturated waters (Article 1 in this series) and; 2) by temperature and pressure-induced changes in its dihedral angle, which in the diagenetic realm is often tied to the development of significant overpressure and hydrocarbon migration (Article 2). The other implication linked to the two dominant modes of salt leakage is the source of the fluid entering the leaking salt. In the first case, the fluid source is external to the salt ("outside the salt"). In the second case, it can be internal to the main salt mass ("inside the salt"). However, due to dihedral angle changes at greater depths and pressures, a significant portion of leaking fluid passing through more deeply-buried altering salt is external. By the onset of greenschist facies metamorphism, this is certainly the case (Chapter 14 in Warren, 2016) 

Diagenetic fluids driving salt leakage are external to the salt mass

Within a framework of fluids breaching a subsurface salt body, the breached salt can be a bed of varying thickness, or it can have flowed into a variety of autochthonous and allochthonous salt masses. Autochthonous salt structures are still firmly rooted in the stratigraphic level of the primary salt bed. Allochthonous salt structurally overlies parts of its (stratigraphically younger) overburden and is often no longer connected to the primary salt bed (mother-salt level).

Breaches in bedded (non-halokinetic) salt

The principal documented mechanism enabling leakage across bedded salt in the diagenetic realm is dissolution, leading to breaks or terminations in salt bed continuity. Less often, leakage across a salt unit can occur where bedded salt has responded in a brittle fashion and fractured or faulted (Davison, 2009). In hydrocarbon-producing basins with widespread evaporite seals, significant fluid leakage tends to occur near the edges of the salt bed. For example, in the Middle East, the laterally continuous Hith Anhydrite (Jurassic) acts as a regional seal to underlying Arab Cycle reservoirs and carbonate-mudstone source rock. The high efficiency of the Hith seal creates many of the regions giant and supergiant fields, including Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, which is the largest single oil-filled structure in the world. Inherent maintenance of the evaporite's seal capacity also prevents vertical migration from mature sub-Hith source rocks into potential reservoirs in the overlying Mesozoic section across much of Saudi Arabia and the western Emirates. However, toward the Hith seal edge are a number of large fields supra-Hith fields, hosted in Cretaceous carbonates, and a significant portion of the hydrocarbons are sourced in Jurassic carbonate muds that lie stratigraphically below the anhydrite level (Figure 1).

 

The modern Hith Anhydrite edge is not the depositional margin of the laterally extensive evaporite bed. Rather, it is a dissolution edge, where rising basinal brines moving up and out of the basin have thinned and altered the past continuity of this effective seal.

The process of ongoing dissolution allowing vertical leakage near the edge of a subsurface evaporite interval, typifies not just the edge of bedded salts but also the basinward edges of salt units that are also halokinetic. The dissolution edge effect of the Ara Salt and its basinward retreat over time are clearly seen along the eastern edge of the South Oman Salt Basin where the time of filling of the Permian-hosted reservoir structures youngs toward the west (Figure 2).


 

Leakages associated with the margins of discrete diapiric structures

Once formed, salt diapirs tend to focused upward escape of basinal fluid flows: as evidenced by: (1) localized development of mud mounds and chemosynthetic seeps at depopod edges above diapirs in the Gulf of Mexico (Figure 3a); (2) shallow gas anomalies clustered around and above salt diapirs in the North Sea and (Figure 3b); (3) localized salinity anomalies around salt diapirs, offshore Louisiana and with large pockmarks above diapir margins in West Africa (Cartwright et al., 2007). Likewise, in the eastern Mediterranean region, gas chimneys in the Tertiary overburden are common above regions of thinned Messinian Salt, as in the vicinity of the Latakia Ridge (Figure 4).



Leakage of sub-salt fluids associated with salt welds and halokinetic touchdowns

Whenever a salt weld or touchdown occurs, fluids can migrate vertically across the level of a now flow-thinned or no-longer-present salt level. Such touchdowns or salt welds can be in basin positions located well away from the diapir edge and are a significant feature in the formation of many larger base-metal and copper traps, as well as many depopod-hosted siliciclastic oil and gas reservoirs (Figure 5: Warren 2016).


Caprocks are leaky

Any caprock indicates leakage and fractional dissolution have occurred along the evaporite boundary (Figure 5). Passage of an undersaturated fluid at or near the edge of a salt mass creates a zone of evaporite dissolution residues, which in the case of diapiric occurrences is called usually called a “caprock,” although such diagenetic units do not only form a “cap” or top to a salt structure.

Historically, in the 1920s and 30s, shallow vuggy and fractured caprocks to salt diapirs were early onshore exploration targets about topographic highs in the Gulf of Mexico (e.g. Spindletop). Even today, the density of drilling and geological data derived from these onshore diapiric features means many models of caprock formation are mostly based on examples in Texas and Louisiana. Onshore in the Gulf of Mexico, caprocks form best in dissolution zones at the outer, upper, edges of salt structures, where active cross-flows of meteoric waters are fractionally dissolving the salt. However, rocks composed of fractional dissolution residues, with many of the same textural and mineralogical association as classic Gulf of Mexico caprocks, are now known to mantle the deep sides of subvertical-diapirs in the North Sea (e. g., lateral caprock in the Epsilon Diapir) and define the basal anhydrite (basal caprock) that defines the underbelly of the Cretaceous Maha Sarakham halite across the Khorat Plateau in NE Thailand (Figure 5; Warren, 2016).


All “caprocks” are fractionally-dissolved accumulations of diapir dissolution products and form in zones of fluid-salt interaction and leakage, wherever a salt mass is in contact with undersaturated pore fluids (Figure 6). First to dissolve is halite, leaving behind anhydrite residues, that cross-flushing pore waters can then convert to gypsum and, in the presence of sulphate-reducing bacteria, to calcite. If the diapir experiences another growth pulse the caprock can be broken and penetrated by the rising salt. This helps explain fragments of caprock caught up in shale sheaths or anomalous dark-salt zones, as exemplified by less-pure salt-edge intersection units described as dark and anomalous salt zones in the Gulf of Mexico diapirs (as documented in Article 1).

2. Fluids that are internal to the salt mass

Fluid entry in relation to changes in the dihedral angle of halite is well documented (Article 2). It was first recorded by Lewis and Holness (1996) who postulated, based on their static-salt laboratory experiments;

"In sedimentary basins with normal geothermal gradients, halite bodies at depths exceeding 3 km will contain a stable interconnected brine-filled porosity, resulting in permeabilities comparable to those of sandstones". Extrapolating from their static halite pressure experiments they inferred that halite, occurring at depths of more than ≈3 km and temperatures above 200 °C, has a uniform intrasalt pore system filled with brine, and therefore relatively high permeabilities.

In the real world of the subsurface, salt seals can hold back significant hydrocarbon columns down to depths of more than 6-7 km (see case studies in Chapter 10 in Warren, 2016 and additional documentation the SaltWork database). Based on a compilation of salt-sealed hydrocarbon reservoirs, trans-salt leakage across 75-100 metres or more of pure salt does not occur at depths less than 7-8 km, or temperatures of less than 150°C. In their work on the Haselbirge Formation in the Alps, Leitner et al. (2001) use a temperature range >100 °C and pressures >70 MPa as defining the onset of the dihedral transition.

It seems that across much of the mesogenetic realm, a flowing and compacting salt mass or bed can maintain seal integrity to much greater depths than postulated by static halite percolation experiments. In the subsurface, there may be local pressured-induced changes in the halite dihedral angle within the salt mass, as seen in the Ara Salt in Oman, but even there, there is no evidence of the total km-scale salt mass transitioning into a leaky aquifer via changes in the halite dihedral angle (Kukla et al., 2011). But certainly, as we move from the diagenetic into the metamorphic realm, even thick pure salt bodies become permeable across the whole salt mass. Deeply buried and pressured salt ultimately dissolves as it transitions into various meta-evaporite indicator minerals and zones (Chapter 14, Warren, 2016).

When increasing pressure and temperature changes the halite dihedral angle in the diagenetic realm, then supersaturated hydrocarbon-bearing brines can enter salt formations to create naturally-hydrofractured "dark-salt". As we discussed in Article 2, pressure-induced changes in dihedral angle in the Ara Salt of Oman create black salt haloes that penetrate, from the overpressured salt-encased carbonate sliver source, up to 50 or more meters into the adjacent halite (Schoenherr et al. 2007). Likewise, Kettanah, 2013 argues Argo Salt of eastern Canada also has leaked, based on the presence of petroleum-fluid inclusions (PFI) and mixed aqueous and fluid inclusions (MFI) in the recrystallised halite (Figure 7 - see also Ara “black salt” core photos in Article 2 of this series).


Both these cases of dark-salt leakage (Ara and Argo salts) occur well within the salt mass, indicating the halokinetic salt has leaked or transmitted fluids within zones well away from the salt edge. In the case of the Argo salt, the study is based on drill cuttings collected across 1500 meters of intersected salt at depths of 3-4 km. Yet, at the three km+ depths in the Argo Salt where salt contains oil and bitumen, the total salt mass still acts a seal, implying it must have regained or retained seal integrity, after it leaked. Not knowing the internal fold geometries in any deeply buried salt mass, but knowing that all flowing salt masses are internally complex (as seen in salt mines and namakiers), means we cannot assume how far the hydrocarbon inclusions have moved within the salt mass, post-leakage. Nor can we know if, or when, any salt contact occurred with a possible externally derived hydrocarbon-bearing fluid source, or whether subsequent salt flow lifted the hydrocarbon-inclusion-rich salt off the contact surface as salt flowed back into the interior of the salt mass.

Thus, with any hydrocarbon-rich occurrence in a halokinetic salt mass, we must ask the question; did the salt mass once hydrofracture (leak) in its entirety, or did the hydrocarbons enter locally and then as the salt continued to flow, that same hydrocarbon-inclusion-rich interval moved into internal drag and drape folds? In the case of the Ara Salt, the thickness of the black salt penetration away from its overpressured source is known as it is a core-based set of observations. In the Ara Salt at current depths of 3500-4000 m, the fluid migration zones extend 50 -70 meters out from the sliver source in salt masses that are hundreds of metres thick (Kukla et al., 2011; Schoenherr et al., 2007).

So how do we characterize leakage extent in a buried salt mass without core?

Dark salt, especially if it contains hydrocarbons, clearly indicates fluid entry into a salt body in the diagenetic realm. Key to considerations of hydrocarbon trapping and long-term waste storage is how pervasive is the fluid entry, where did the fluid come from, and what are the likely transmission zones in the salt body (bedded versus halokinetic)?

In an interesting recent paper documenting and discussing salt leakage, Ghanbarzadeh et al., 2015 conclude:

“The observed hydrocarbon distributions in rock salt require that percolation occurred at porosities considerably below the static threshold due to deformation-assisted percolation. Therefore, the design of nuclear waste repositories in salt should guard against deformation-driven fluid percolation. In general, static percolation thresholds may not always limit fluid flow in deforming environments.”

Their conclusions are based on lab experiments on static salt and extrapolation to a combination of mud log and wireline data collected from a number of wells that intersected salt allochthons in Louann Salt in the Gulf of Mexico. Their lab data on changing dihedral angles inducing leakage or percolation in static salt confirms the experiments of Holness and Lewis (1996 – See Article 2). But they took the implications of dihedral angle change further, using CT imagery to document creation of interconnected polyhedral porosity in static salt at higher temperatures and pressures (Figure 8). They utilise Archies Law and resistivity measures to calculate inferred porosity, although it would be interesting what values they utilise for cementation exponent (depends on pore tortuosity) Sw and saturation exponent. Assuming the standard default values of m = 2 and n =2 when applying Archies Law to back calculate porosity spreads in halite of assumed Sw are likely incorrect.  


They then relate their experimental observations to wireline measurements and infer the occurrence of interconnected pores in Gulf of Mexico salt based on this wireline data. Key to their interpretation is the deepwater well GC8 (Figure 9), where they use a combination of a resistivity, gas chromatograms, and mud log observations to infer that hydrocarbons have entered the lower one km of a 4 km thick salt section, via dihedral-induced percolation.

 

I have a problem in accepting this leap of faith from laboratory experiments on pure salt observed at the static decimeter-scale of the lab to the dynamic km-scale of wireline-inferred observations in a salt allochthon in the real world of the offshore in deepwater salt Gulf of Mexico. According to Ghanbarzadeh et al., 2015, the three-part gray background in Figure 9 corresponds to an upper no-percolation zone (dark grey), a transition zone (moderate grey) and a lower percolation zone (light grey). This they then infer to be related to changes in dihedral angle in the halite sampled in the well (right side column). Across the data columns, what the data in the GC8 well show is:  A) Gamma log; allochthon salt has somewhat higher API values at depths shallower than 5000 m; B) Resistivity log, a change in resistivity to higher values (i.e., lower conductivity) with a change in the same cross-salt depth range as seen in the gamma log, beginning around 5100 m; C) Gas (from sniffer), shows a trend of decreasing gas content from the base of salt (around 6200 m) up to a depth around 4700 m, then relatively low values to top salt, with an interval that is possibly shalier interval (perhaps a suture - see below)  that also has a somewhat higher gas content ; D) Gas chromatography, the methane (CH4) content mirrors the total gas trends, as do the other gas phases, where measured; E) Mud Log (fluorescence response), dead oil is variably present from base of salt up to 5000 m, oil staining, oil cut and fluorescence (UV) are variably present from base salt up to a depth of 4400 m.

On the basis of the presented log data, one can infer the lower kilometer of the 4 km salt section contains more methane, more liquid hydrocarbons, and more organic material/kerogen compared to the upper 3 km of salt. Thus, the lower section of the salt intersected in the GC8 well is likely to be locally rich in zones of dark or anomalous salt, compared with the overlying 3 km of salt. What is not given in figure 9 is any information on likely levels of non-organic impurities in the salt, yet this information would have been noted in the same mud log report that listed hydrocarbon levels in the well. In my opinion, there is a lack of lithological information on the Gulf of Mexico salt in the Ghanbarzadeh et al. paper, so one must ask; "does the lower kilometer of salt sampled in the GC8 well, as well as containing hydrocarbons also contain other impurities like shale, pyrite, anhydrite, etc. If so, potentially leaky intervals could be present that were emplaced by sedimentological processes unrelated to changes in the dihedral angle of the halite (see next section).


Giving information that is standard in any mud-log cuttings description (such as the amount of anhydrite, shale, etc that occur in drill chips across the salt mass), would have added a greater level of scientific validity to to Ghanbarzadeh et al.'s inference that observed changes in hydrocarbon content up section, was solely facilitated by changes in dihedral angle of halite facilitating ongoing leakage from below the base of salt and not due to the dynamic nature of salt low as the allochthon or fused allochthons formed.  Lithological information on salt purity is widespread in the Gulf of Mexico public domain data. For example, Figure 10 shows a seismic section through the Mahogany field and the intersection of the salt by the Phillips No. 1 discovery well (drilled in 1991). This interpreted section, tied to wireline and cuttings information, was first published back in 1995 and re-published in 2010. It shows intrasalt complexity, which we now know typifies many sutured salt allochthon and canopy terrains across the Gulf of Mexico salt province. Internally, Gulf of Mexico salt allochthons, like others worldwide, are not composed of pure halite, just as is the case in the onshore structures discussed in the context of dark salt zones in article 1. Likely, a similar lack of purity and significant structural and lithological variation typifies most if not all of the salt masses sampled by the Gulf of Mexico wells listed in the Ghanbarzadeh et al. paper, including the key GC8 well (Figure 9). This variation in salt purity and varying degrees of local leakage is inherent to the emplacement stage of all salt allochthons world-wide. It is set up as the salt flow (both gravity spreading and gravity gliding) occurs at, or just below the seafloor, fed by varying combinations of extrusion or thrusting, which moves salt out and over the seabed (Figure 11).

 


 

Salt, when it is flowing laterally and creating a salt allochthon, is in a period of rapid breakout (Figure 11; Hudec and Jackson, 2006, 2007; Warren 2016). This describes the situation when a rising salt sheet rolls out over its base, much in the same way a military tank moves out over its track belt. As the salt spreads, the basal and lateral salt in the expanding allochthon mass, is subject to dissolution, episodic retreat, collapse and mixing with seafloor sediment, along with the entry of compactional fluids derived from the sediments beneath. Increased impurity levels are particularly obvious in disturbed basal shear zones that transition downward into a gumbo zone (Figure 12a), but also mantle the sides of subvertical salt structures, and can evolve by further salt dissolution into lateral caprocks and shale sheaths (Figure 6).

In expanding allochthon provinces, zones of non-halite sediment typically define sutures within (autosutures; Figure 12b) or between salt canopies (allosutures; Figure 12c). These sutures are encased in halite as locally leaky, dark salt intervals, and they tend to be able to contribute greater volumes of fluid and ongoing intrasalt dissolution intensity and alteration where the suture sediment is in contact with outside-the-salt fluids. Allochthon rollout, with simultaneous diagenesis and leakage, occurs across intrasalt shear zones, or along deforming basal zones. In the basal part of an expanding allochthon sheet the combination of shearing, sealing, and periodic leakage creates what is known as “gumbo,” a term that describes a complex, variably-pressured, shale-rich transition along the basal margin of most salt allochthons in the Gulf of Mexico (Figure 12a). Away from suture zones, as more allochthon salt rolls out over the top of earlier foot-zones to the spreading salt mass, the inner parts of the expanding and spreading allochthon body tend toward greater internal salt purity (less non-salt and dissolution residue sediment, as well as less salt-entrained hydrocarbons and fluid inclusion).

At the salt's upper contact, the spreading salt mass may carry its overburden with it, or it may be bare topped (aka open-toed; Figure 11). In either case, once salt movement slows and stops, a caprock carapace starts to form that is best developed wherever the salt edge is flushed by undersaturated pore waters (Figure 6). Soon after its emplacement, the basal zone of a salt allochthon acts a focus for rising compactional fluids coming from sediments beneath. So, even as it is still spreading, the lower side of the salt sheet is subject to dissolution, and hydrocarbon entry, often with remnants of the same hydrocarbon-entraining brines leaking to seafloor about the salt sheet edge. As the laterally-focused subsalt brines escape to the seafloor across zones of thinned and leaky salt or at the allochthon edge, they can pond to form chemosynthetic DHAL (Deepsea Hypersaline Anoxic Lake) brine pools (Figure 3a). Such seep-fed brine lakes typify the deep sea floor in the salt allochthon region of continental slope and rise in the Gulf of Mexico and the compressional salt ridge terrain in the central and eastern Mediterranean. If an allochthon sheet continues to expand, organic-rich DHAL sediments and fluids become part of the basal shear to the salt sheet (Figure 12a).


Unfortunately, Ghanbarzadeh et al., 2015 did not consider the likely geological implications of salt allochthon emplacement mechanisms and how this likely explains much of the geological character seen in wireline signatures across wells intersecting salt in the Gulf of Mexico. Rather, they assume the salt system and the geological character they infer as existing in the lower portions of Gulf of Mexico salt masses, are tied to post-emplacement changes in salt's dihedral angle in what they consider as relatively homogenous and pure salt masses. They modeled the various salt masses in the Gulf of Mexico as static, with upward changes in the salt purity indicative of concurrent hydrocarbon leakage into salt and facilitated by altered dihedral angles in the halite. A basic tenet of science is "similarity does not mean equivalence." Without a core from this zone, one cannot assume hydrocarbon occurrence in the lower portions of Gulf of Mexico salt sheets is due to changes in dihedral angle. Equally, if not more likely, is that the wireline signatures they present in their paper indicate the manner in which the lower part of a salt allochthon has spread. To me, it seems that the Ghanbarzadeh et al. paper argues for caution in the use of salt cavities for nuclear waste storage for the wrong reasons.

Is nuclear waste storage in salt a safe, viable long-term option?

Worldwide, subsurface salt is an excellent seal, but we also know that salt does fail, that salt does leak, and that salt does dissolve, especially in intrasalt zones in contact with "outside" fluids. Within the zone of anthropogenic access for salt-encased waste storage (depths of 1-2km subsurface) the weakest points for potential leakage in a salt mass, both natural and anthropogenic, are related to intersection with, or unplanned creation of, unexpected fluid transmission zones and associated entry of undersaturated fluids that are sourced outside the salt (see case histories in Chapter 7 and 13 in Warren, 2016). This intersection with zones of undersaturated fluid creates zones of weakened seal capacity and increases the possibility of exchange and mixing of fluids derived both within and outside the salt mass. In the 1-2 km depth range, the key factor to be discussed in relation to dihedral angle change inducing percolation in the salt, will only be expressed as local heating and fluid haloes in the salt about the storage cavity. Such angle changes are tied to a thermal regime induced by long-term storage of medium to high-level radioactive waste.  

I use an ideal depth range of 1-2 km for storage cavities in salt as cavities located much deeper than 2 km are subject to compressional closure or salt creep during the active life of the cavity (active = time of waste emplacement into the cavity). Cavities shallower than 1 km are subject to the effects of deep phreatic circulation. Salt-creep-induced partial cavity closure, in a salt diapir host, plagued the initial stages of use of the purpose-built gas storage cavity known as Eminence in Mississippi. In the early 1970s, this cavity was subject to a creep-induced reduction in cavity volume until gas storage pressures were increased and the cavern shape re-stabilised. Cavities in salt shallower than 1 km are likely to be located in salt intervals that at times have been altered by cross flows of deeply-circulating meteoric or marine-derived phreatic waters. Problematic percolation or leakage zones (aka anomalous salt zones), which can occur in some places in salt masses in the 1-2 km depth range, are usually tied to varying combinations of salt thinning, salt dissolution or intersection with unexpected regions of impure salt (relative aquifers). In addition to such natural process sets, cross-salt leakage can be related to local zones of mechanical damage, tied to processes involved in excavating a mine shaft, or in the drilling and casing of wells used to create a purpose-built salt-solution cavity. Many potential areas of leakage in existing mines or brine wells are the result of poorly completed or maintained access wells, or intersections with zones of “dark salt,” or with proximity to a thinned salt cavity wall in a diapir, as documented in articles 1 and 2 (and detailed in various case studies in Chapters 7 and 13 in Warren 2016).

In my opinion, the history of extraction, and intersections with leakage zones, during the life of most of the world’s existing salt mines means conventional mines in salt are probably not appropriate sites for long-term radioactive waste storage. Existing salt mines were not designed for waste storage, but to extract salt or potash with mining operations often continuing in a particular direction along an ore seam until the edge of the salt was approached or even intersected. When high fluid transmission zones are unexpectedly intersected during the lifetime of a salt mine, two things happen; 1) the mine floods and operations cease, or the flooded mine is converted to a brine extraction facility (Patience Lake) or, 2) the zone of leakage is successfully grouted and in the short term (tens of years) mining continues (Warren, 2016).

For example, in the period 1906 to 1988, when Asse II was an operational salt mine, there were 29 documented water breaches that were grouted or retreated from. Over the long term, these same water-entry driven dissolution zones indicate a set of natural seep processes that continued behind the grout job. This is true in any salt mine that has come “out of the salt” and outside fluid has leaked into the mine. “Out-of-salt” intersections are typically related to fluids entering the salt mass via dark-salt or brecciated zones or shale sheath intersections (these all forms of anomalous salt discussed in article 1 and documented in the case studies discussed in Chapter 13 in Warren 2016).

I distinguish such “out-of-salt” fluid intersections from “in-salt” fluid-filled cavities. When the latter is cut, entrained fluids drain into the mine and then flow stops. Such intersections can be dangerous during the operation of a mine as there is often nitrogen, methane or CO2 in an "in-the-salt” cavity, so there is potential for explosion and fatalities. But, in terms of long-term and ongoing fluid leakage “in-salt” cavities are not a problem.

Ultimately, because “out-of-salt” fluid intersections are part of the working life of any salt mine, seal integrity in any mine converted to a storage facility will fail. Such failures are evidenced by current water entry problems in Asse II Mine, Germany (low-medium level radioactive waste storage) and the removal of the oil formerly stored in the Weeks Island strategic hydrocarbon facility, Texas. Weeks Island was a salt mine converted to oil storage. After the mine was filled with oil, expanding karst cavities were noticed forming at the surface above the storage area. Recovery required a very expensive renovation program that ultimately removed more than 95% of the stored hydrocarbons. And yet, during the active life of the Weeks Island Salt Mine, the mine geologists had mapped “black salt” occurrences and tied them to unwanted fluid entries that were then grouted. Operations to block or control the entry of fluids were successful, and salt extraction continued apace.  This information on fluid entry was available well before the salt mine was purchased and converted to a federal oil storage facility. However, in the 1970s when the mine was converted, our knowledge of salt properties and salt's stability over the longer term was less refined than today.

Worldwide, the biggest problem with converting existing salt mines to low to medium level nuclear waste storage facilities is that all salt mines are relatively shallow, with operating mine depth controlled by temperatures where humans can work (typically 300-700 m and always less than 1.1 km). This relatively shallow depth range, especially at depths above 500 m, is also where slowly-circulating subsurface or phreatic waters are dissolving halite to varying degrees, This is where fluids can enter the salt from outside and so create problematic dark-salt and collapse breccia zones within the salt. In the long-term (hundreds to thousands of years) these same fluid access regions have the potential to allow stored waste fluids to escape the salt mass,

Another potential problem with long-term waste storage in many salt mines, and in some salt cavity hydrocarbon storage facilities excavated in bedded (non-diapiric) salt, is the limited thickness of a halite beds across the depth range of such conventional salt mines and storage facilities. Worldwide, bedded ancient salt tends to be either lacustrine or intracratonic, and individual halite units are no more than 10-50 m thick in stacks of various saline lithologies. That is, intracratonic halite is usually interlayered with laterally extensive carbonate, anhydrite or shale beds, that together pile into bedded saline successions up to a few hundred metres thick (Warren 2010). The non-halite interlayers may act as potential long-term intrasalt aquifers, especially if connected to non-salt sediments outside the halite (Figure 13). This is particularly true if the non-salt beds remain intact and hydraulically connected to up-dip or down-dip zones where the encasing halite is dissolutionally thinned or lost. Connection to such a dolomite bed above the main salt bed, in combination with damaged casing in an access well, explains the Hutchison gas explosion (Warren, 2016). Also, if there is significant local heating associated with longer term nuclear waste storage in such relatively thin (<10-50 m) salt beds, then percolation, related to heat-induced dihedral angle changes, may also become relevant over the long-term (tens of thousands of years), even in bedded storage facilities in 1-2 km depth range.


Now what?

Creating a purpose-built mine for the storage of low-level waste in a salt diapir within the appropriate depth range of 1-2 km is the preferred approach and a much safer option, compared to the conversion of existing mines in diapiric salt, but is likely to be prohibitively expensive. To minimise the potential of unwanted fluid ingress, the entry shaft should be vertical, not inclined. The freeze-stabilised “best practice” vertical shaft currently being constructed by BHP in Canada for its new Jansen potash mine (bedded salt) is expected to cost more than $1.3 billion. If a purpose-built mine storage facility were to be constructed for low to medium level waste storage in a salt diapir, then the facility should operate at a depth of 800-1000m. Ideally, such a purpose-built mine should also be located hundreds of metres away from the edges of salt mass in a region that is not part of an area of older historical salt extraction operations. At current costings, such a conventionally-mined purpose-built storage facility for low to medium level radioactive waste is not economically feasible.

This leaves purpose-built salt-solution cavities excavated within thick salt domes at depths of 1-2 km; such purpose-built cavities should be located well away from the salt edge and in zones with no nearby pre-existing brine-extraction cavities or oil-field exploration wells. This precludes most of the onshore salt diapir provinces of Europe and North America as repositories for high-level nuclear waste, all possible sites are located in high population areas and can have century-long histories of poorly documented salt and brine extraction and petroleum wells. Staying "in-the-salt" over the long-term would an ongoing problem in these regions (see case histories in chapters 7 and 13 in Warren, 2016 for a summary of some problems areas).

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Warren, J. K., 2016, Evaporites: A Compendium (ISBN 978-3-319-13511-3) Released Feb. 22 2016: Berlin, Springer, 1854 p.


 


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