New Mineral Science Shows Promise for Reducing Environmental Impacts from Mining

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Mining companies, land managers, and regulators now have a wealth of tools to aid in reducing potential mining impacts even before the mine gets started. USGS and various research partners released a special edition of papers specifically targeted at providing modern environmental effect research for modern mining techniques.

Mining companies, land managers, and regulators now have a wealth of tools to aid in reducing potential mining impacts even before the mine gets started. USGS and various research partners released a special edition of papers specifically targeted at providing modern environmental effect research for modern mining techniques.

Minerals play an important role in the global economy, and, as rising standards of living have increased demand for those minerals, the number and size of mines have increased, leading to larger potential impacts from mining.

“Approaches to protecting the environment from mining impacts have undergone a revolution over the past several decades,” said USGS mineral and environmental expert Bob Seal. “The sustainability of that revolution relies on an evolving scientific understanding of how mines and their waste products interact with the environment.”

Many research conclusions are contained in the special issue, and some of the primary findings are listed here:

Pre-Mining Tools

  • USGS evaluated several tools for predicting pre-mining baseline conditions at a mine, even if no baseline was established. This will make it easier to remediate the mine after it closes.
  • USGS also took tools used to screen mine waste for contaminants and tested them  for predicting potential sources for contaminants before the mine even got started.

Mitigating while Mining

  • Because slag is the byproduct of mineral processing, its physical and chemical properties depend a lot on what the original mined mineral material was.
  • Slag from copper, zinc, or nickel may be less attractive for reuse, since it has a higher potential to negatively impact the environment than slag that came from iron or steel production.
  • Gold mining runs a lower risk of contaminating the environment with cyanide if mines give enough time for it to safely evaporate and be broken down by sunlight.

Mine Drainage

  • Mine drainage is incredibly complicated. It doesn’t come from a single source, but rather complex interactions between water, air, and micro-organisms like bacteria.
  • Mine drainage is not just acid mine drainage—it can be basic, neutral, or even high in salts. All of these drainage types have their own impacts.
  • Mine drainage concentrations in streams can actually change based on the time of day.

Toxic Transport

  • USGS tested many of the existing techniques for figuring out what toxic contaminants wind up in stream sediments so managers know the right one for the right job.
  • USGS also evaluated a new technique for predicting how toxic certain metals will be in aquatic environments.

The research papers are contained in a special issue of the journal Applied Geochemistry. This research was conducted by scientists from USGS and several collaborating organizations, including the Geological Survey of Canada, InTerraLogic, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, Montana Tech, SUNY Oneonta, the University of Maryland, the University of Montana, and the University of Waterloo.

USGS minerals research can help to identify problems before they become problems, or at the very least, help address the impacts that do exist. Learn more about USGS minerals research here, or follow us on www.twitter.com/usgsminerals