Geosynthetic liners for sustainable development of Arctic mineral resources

Extraction of mineral resources contributed $57 billion to Canada's economy in 2016. More than $8 billion in new mineral resource development is anticipated in the next decade alone in the Canadian Arctic. These activities involve generation of contaminated water that needs to be managed in a sustainable manner to maintain and help grow this vital economic activity while protecting surface and ground water and the sensitive Arctic ecosystem. These waters include runoff through acid generating waste rock piles and end of process wastes from mining called tailings. Large piles or impoundments are commonly used to contain these wastes.

To minimize ground and surface water contamination they need to be contained in a safe but economically feasible manner. Geomembranes (plastic or bituminous) and geosynthetic clay liners are being considered as liners on top of waste rock piles (as an engineered cover to limit the movement of water and air through the waste) and on the bottom of tailings impoundments (as an engineered barrier to reduce the quantity of contaminants from escaping into the surrounding environment). These geosynthetic liners have been used to significantly enhance environmental protection at municipal waste landfills. However, there is little specific data to permit their rational design and long-term assessment in Arctic conditions, especially when considering the effects of global climate change.

The Geoengineering Centre at Queen's - RMC is undertaking a major collaborative project examining questions such as how much fluid may be expected to leak through the liner and how long the liner will last when exposed to the chemicals and physical stresses in Arctic mining applications. The overall aim of this partnership between university researchers, engineering consultants, and geosynthetic manufacturers is to establish a scientifically sound technical basis for the design of geosynthetic liners to enable the sustainable development of Arctic mineral resources.  The project is being led by Professors R. Kerry Rowe, Richard W.I. Brachman and Fady B. Abdelaal with industrial partners CTT Group, Golder Associates Ltd,  Klohn Crippen Berger Ltd., Knight Piésold, Ltd., Layfield Group, Solmax International Inc. SNC-Lavalin Inc., Terrafix Geosynthetics Inc.,  Titan Environmental Containment Ltd. and Wood PLC with  funding by a NSERC Strategic Grant. Topic being explored are:

A. Geomembranes in arctic mine waste covers

A1. Assessing geomembrane resistance for arctic waste covers

A2. Calculating geomembrane stresses and strains for arctic waste covers

A3. Cold-temperature thermal stresses from seasonal and rapid cooling

B. Geomembranes as bottom liners in tailing storage facilities

B1. Quantifying geomembrane service-life for arctic tailings

B2. Impact of geomembrane service-life on environmental impact

C. Geosynthetic clay liners (GCL) in arctic mine waste covers

C1. Needle-punch bundle size and GCL permeability for arctic waste covers

C2. Transmissivity between geomembrane and GCL for arctic waste covers

This project follows a very successful earlier collaboration examining the long-term performance of geomembranes (GMBs) and geosynthetic clay liners (GCLs) used in liner systems for applications such as municipal solid waste landfills and heap leach pads used for resource recovery. A particular focus was on both how long these stems will last and on how well they will provide environmental protection from emerging contaminants of concern.  Papers arising from this work can be accessed directly from this web page as they are published.  Papers in press are also listed but cannot be downloaded directly until published.  If you need a password for access to any paper, send an email to

Collaborative Project on the Long-Term Performance of Barrier Systems