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Applied Geochemistry Special Issue on Environmental geochemistry of modern mining

June 1, 2015

Environmental geochemistry is an integral part of the mine-life cycle, particularly for modern mining. The critical importance of environmental geochemistry begins with pre-mining baseline characterization and the assessment of environmental risks related to mining, continues through active mining especially in water and waste management practices, and culminates in mine closure. The enhanced significance of environmental geochemistry to modern mining has arisen from an increased knowledge of the impacts that historical and active mining can have on the environment, and from new regulations meant to guard against these impacts. New regulations are commonly motivated by advances in the scientific understanding of the environmental impacts of past mining. The impacts can be physical, chemical, and biological in nature. The physical challenges typically fall within the purview of engineers, whereas the chemical and biological challenges typically require a multidisciplinary array of expertise including geologists, geochemists, hydrologists, microbiologists, and biologists. The modern mine-permitting process throughout most of the world now requires that potential risks be assessed prior to the start of mining. The strategies for this risk assessment include a thorough characterization of pre-mining baseline conditions and the identification of risks specifically related to the manner in which the ore will be mined and processed, how water and waste products will be managed, and what the final configuration of the post-mining landscape will be.

In the Fall 2010, the Society of Economic Geologists held a short course in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver, Colorado (USA) to examine the environmental geochemistry of modern mining. The intent was to focus on issues that are pertinent to current and future mines, as opposed to abandoned mines, which have been the focus of numerous previous short courses. The geochemical challenges of current and future mines share similarities with abandoned mines, but differences also exist. Mining and ore processing techniques have changed; the environmental footprint of waste materials has changed; environmental protection has become a more integral part of the mine planning process; and most historical mining was done with limited regard for the environment. The 17 papers in this special issue evolved from the Society of Economic Geologists’ short course.

The relevant geochemical processes encompass the source, transport, and fate of contaminants related to the life cycle of a mine. Contaminants include metals and other inorganic species derived from geologic sources such as ore and solid mine waste, and substances brought to the site for ore processing, such as cyanide to leach gold. Factors, such as mine-waste mineralogy, hydrologic setting, mine-drainage chemistry, and microbial activity, that affect the hydrochemical risks from mining are reviewed by Nordstrom et al. In another paper, Nordstrom discusses baseline characterization at mine sites in a regulatory framework, and emphasizes the influence of mineral deposits in producing naturally elevated concentrations of many trace elements in surface water and groundwater. Surface water quality in mineralized watersheds is influenced by a number of processes that act on daily (diel) cycles and can produce dramatic variations in trace element concentrations as described by Gammons et al. Pre-mining baseline characterization studies should strive to capture the magnitude of these diel variations. Desbarats et al., using a case study of mine drainage from a gold mine, illustrate how elements that commonly occur as negatively charged species (anions) in solution, such as arsenic as arsenate, behave in an opposite fashion than most metals, which occur as positively charged species (cations). Significant improvement in the understanding of factors that influence the toxicity of metals to aquatic organisms in surface water has highlighted the importance of aqueous chemistry, particularly dissolved organic carbon, as described by Smith et al. Stream sediment contamination is another important pathway for affecting aquatic organisms, as reviewed by Besser et al. Understanding and predicting environmental consequences from mining begins with knowing the mineralogy and mineral reactivity of the ore, the wastes, and of secondary minerals formed later. Jamieson et al. review the importance of mineralogical studies in mine planning and remediation. A number of types of site-specific studies are needed to identify environmental risks related to individual mines. Lapakko reviews the general framework of mine waste characterization studies that are integral to the mine planning process. Hageman et al. present a comparative study of several static tests commonly used to characterize mine waste.

The mining and ore processing practices employed at a specific mine site will vary on the basis of the commodities being targeted, the geology of the deposit, the geometry of the deposit, and the mining and ore processing methods used. Thus, these factors, in addition to the waste management practices used, can result in a variety of end-member mine waste features, each of which has its own set of challenges. Open pit mines and underground mines require waste rock to be removed to access ore. Waste rock presents unique problems because the rock is commonly mineralized at sub-economic grades and has not been processed to remove potentially problematic minerals, such as pyrite. Amos et al. examine the salient aspects of the geochemistry of waste rock. Mill tailings – the waste material after ore minerals have been removed – are a volumetrically important solid waste at many mine sites. Their fine grain size and the options for their management make their behavior in the environment distinct from that of waste rock. Lindsay et al. describe some of these differences through three case-study examples. Subaqueous disposal of tailings is another option described by Moncur et al. Cyanide leaching for gold extraction is a common method throughout the world. Johnson describes environmental aspects of cyanidation. Uranium mining presents unique environmental challenges, particularly since in-situ recovery has seen widespread use. Campbell et al. review the environmental geochemistry of uranium mining and current research on bioremediation. Ore concentrates from many types of metal mining undergo a pyrometallurgical technique known as smelting to extract the metal. Slag is the result of smelting, and it may be an environmental liability or a valuable byproduct, as described by Piatak et al. Finally, the open pits that result from surface mining commonly reach below the water table. At the end of mining, these pits may fill to form lakes that become part of the legacy of the mine. Castendyk et al., in two papers, review theoretical aspects of the environmental limnology of pit lakes. They also describe approaches that have been used to model pit lake water balance, wall-rock contributions to pit lake chemistry, pit lake water quality, and limnological processes, such as vertical mixing, through the use of three case studies.

Publication Year 2015
Title Applied Geochemistry Special Issue on Environmental geochemistry of modern mining
DOI 10.1016/j.apgeochem.2015.04.019
Authors Robert R. Seal, D. Kirk Nordstrom
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Applied Geochemistry
Index ID 70191256
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Eastern Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center