Minerals Science Team

Science Center Objects

Mineral mining is an essential part of a healthy economy. U.S. mines produced an estimated $75.2 billion in nonfuel minerals during 2017 including industrial minerals, aggregates, and metals. The mining industry and government regulators work to prevent the release of contaminants such as metals into the environment from mining activities. With interdisciplinary scientists in our laboratories and field sites across the U.S., the Minerals Science Team team of the U.S. Geological Survey Environmental Health Mission Area works to understand the actual versus perceived health implications of mineral-resource development activities, including extraction, processing, and waste management. Based on our geological, geochemical, hydrological, and biological insights, our science can help anticipate where there is potential for mining-related health impacts, and, for sites where such potential exists, aid in the development of best mining practices that better prevent health impacts before they develop. Our scientific data also help separate natural background effects from mining-related effects on the health of humans, fish, and wildlife.

Mineral particles (colloids)

A USGS scientist collects a water sample for analysis of mineral particles known as colloids. Toxic metals (such as copper in excess) bind to the particles, which are then ingested by aquatic animals.

(Credit: Daniel Cain, US Geological Survey. Public domain.)

For existing mining or mineral processing sites that are shown to have adverse health impacts, our science is used by land managers and other decision makers to identify where limited cleanup funding can be applied in order to achieve the greatest benefits and to measure cleanup success from a health perspective. With this information in hand, land managers, other decision makers, and the private sector are able to balance the societal need for minerals with further action, if any, to minimize health risks associated with mineral resource development.

Current Science Questions and Activities

  • Do instream water quality processes in small watershed impacted by hard rock mining effect the health of aquatic biota?
  • What is the quantity, contaminant flux, and actual health effects to aquatic biota due to contaminant exposures in perennial streams influenced by groundwater near legacy uranium mills?
  • Does in situ recovery (ISR) mining and restoration create environmental pathways of contaminant exposure to the public using groundwater as a source of drinking water?
  • What are the conceptual and mechanistic biogeochemical processes that affect metal bioaccumulation and toxic health-effects to aquatic biota exposed to surface waters contaminated by mining operations?
  • What is the link between metals in fine particulate organic material and metal bioaccumulation in filter-feeding aquatic insects?
  • How do species traits influence metal exposure and can this relationship be used to predict metal effects on the health of freshwater biota?
  • Is growth and health of aquatic/semi aquatic plants compromised in environments with trace metals from mining activities?
  • Are heavy metal exposures a factor in the lack of natural recruitment of white sturgeon in the upper Columbia River?
  • Can crayfish serve as surrogate species for exposure and uptake, fate and transport, and health effects of minerals that naturally occur in the environment or released to the environment from mining activities?


Canyon Mine Sampling

USGS scientists collecting soil samples inside the perimeter fence at the Canyon Mine, Arizona. The mine's headframe and mine workshop are visible in the background.

(Credit: Katie Walton-Day, US Geological Survey. Public domain.)