Phytostabilization of Mine Tailings in Arid and Semiarid Environments-An Emerging Remediation Technology

By Mendez, Monica O.; Maier, Raina M. | Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Phytostabilization of Mine Tailings in Arid and Semiarid Environments-An Emerging Remediation Technology


Mendez, Monica O., Maier, Raina M., Environmental Health Perspectives


OBJECTIVE: Unreclaimed mine tailings sites are a worldwide problem, with thousands of unvegetated, exposed tailings piles presenting a source of contamination for nearby communities. Tailings disposal sites in arid and semiarid environments are especially subject to eolian dispersion and water erosion. Phytostabilization, the use of plants for in situ stabilization of tailings and metal contaminants, is a feasible alternative to costly remediation practices. In this review we emphasize considerations for phytostabilization of mine tailings in arid and semiarid environments, as well as issues impeding its long-term success.

DATA SOURCES: We reviewed literature addressing mine closures and revegetation of mine tailings, along with publications evaluating plant ecology, microbial ecology, and soil properties of mine tailings.

DATA EXTRACTION: Data were extracted from peer-reviewed articles and books identified in Web of Science and Agricola databases, and publications available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the United Nations Environment Programme.

DATA SYNTHESIS: Harsh climatic conditions in arid and semiarid environments along with the innate properties of mine tailings require specific considerations. Plants suitable for phytostabilization must be native, be drought-, salt-, and metal-tolerant, and should limit shoot metal accumulation. Factors for evaluating metal accumulation and toxicity issues are presented. Also reviewed are aspects of implementing phytostabilization, including plant growth stage, amendments, irrigation, and evaluation.

CONCLUSIONS: Phytostabilization of mine tailings is a promising remedial technology but requires further research to identify factors affecting its long-term success by expanding knowledge of suitable plant species and mine tailings chemistry in ongoing field trials.

KEY WORDS: arid, mine tailings, phytostabilization, remediation, revegetation, semiarid. Environ Health Perspect 116:278-283 (2008). doi:10.1289/chp. 10608 available via http://dx.doi.org/ [Online 17 December 2007]

Mine tailings disposal sites from either inactive or abandoned mine sites are prevalent in arid and semiarid regions throughout the world. Major areas include northern Mexico and the Western United States, the Pacific coast of South America (Chile and Peru), southwestern Spain, western India, South Africa, and Australia (Munshower 1994; Tordoff et al. 2000). The global impact of such mine tailings disposal sites is enormous, as unreclaimed mining sites generally remain unvegetated for tens to hundreds of years, and exposed tailings can spread over tens of hectares via eolian dispersion and water erosion [Gonzalez and Gonzalez-Chavez 2006; Morris et al. 2003; Munshower 1994; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) 2004; Warhurst 2000].

Mine tailings, or mill tailings, are the materials remaining after extraction and beneficiation of ores. What prevents the natural revegetation of mine tailings? It is generally a combination of factors beginning with metal toxicity. Tailings are characterized by elevated concentrations of metals such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, manganese, lead, and zinc (1-50 g/kg) (Boulet and Larocque 1998; Bradshaw et al. 1978; Walder and Chavez 1995). Further, tailings contain no organic matter or macronutrients, and usually exhibit acidic pH, although some tailings may be alkaline (Johnson and Bradshaw 1977; Krzaklewski and Pietrzykowski 2002). For these reasons, tailings remain without normal soil structure and support a severely stressed heterotrophic microbial community (Mendez et al. 2007; Southam and Beveridge 1992). Hence, the microbial community is extremely low in species richness and carbon utilization diversity compared with uncontaminated soil (Moynahan et al. 2002). Furthermore, autotrophic iron- and sulfur-oxidizing bacteria dominate the microbial community in mine tailings and are associated with plant death in acidic tailings (Schippers et al.

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