Minerals Science Team

Science Center Objects

The Minerals Integrated Science Team focuses on contaminant exposures in the environment that might originate from mineral resource activities including, transportation, storage, extraction and waste management. Perceived health risks to humans and other organisms will be distinguished from actual risks, if any. If actual risks are identified this Team will inform how to economically and effectively minimize risk by providing scientific data and understandings about the environmental transport, fate, and exposure pathways of contaminants. Emphasis will be placed on addressing these issues on public and Department of Interior managed landscapes.

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.)

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.

The integrated geological, geochemical, hydrological, and biological Team of scientists works to distiguish naturally sourced toxicants in the environment from those that may originate from mineral resource activities. They use this information to understand fish, wildlife, and human exposure and to determine If their are health risks upon exposure. If health risks are identified, this Team will inform how to economically and effectively minimize risk by providing scientific data and understandings about the environmental transport, fate, and exposure pathways of contaminants.

The science undertaken by the Team can provide information useful to anticipate where there is a potential for mining-related exposures health risks. With this information in hand, land managers, other decision makers, and the private sector are able to balance the societal need for minerals with mitigation needs, 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.)