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Progress & Goals

Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.

Description - Related to EPA Goal, Research & Development goal and Risk Management Research goals: Mining activities in the United States (not counting coal) produce between 1 and 2 billion tons of mine waste annually. These activities include extraction and beneficiation of metallic ores, phosphate, uranium, and oil shale. Over 130,000 of these noncoal mines, concentrated largely in nine western states, are responsible for polluting over 3,400 miles of streams and over 440,000 acres of land. About seventy of these sites are on the National Priority List for Superfund remediation. In the 1985 Report to Congress on the subject, the total noncoal mine waste volume was estimated at 50 billion tons, with 33% being tailings, 17% dump/heap leach wastes and mine water, and 50% surface and underground wastes. Since many of the mines involve sulfide minerals, the production of acid mine drainage (AMD) is a common problem from these abandoned mine sites. The cold temperatures in the higher elevations and heavy snows frequently prevent winter site access. The combinations of acidity, heavy metals, and sediment have severe detrimental environmental impacts on the delicate ecosystems in the West.

Problem: An effective ecosystem management approach to protection and restoration activities requires firm understanding of both the existence and cause of impairment. Significant watershed characteristics that may influence aquatic conditions and that can help predict and diagnose the cause of biological impairment need to be identified.

Scientific Questions:

Approach: There are priority areas for research, in the following order of importance:

Source Controls, Including In Situ Treatments and Predictive Techniques
It is far more effective to attack the problem at its source than to attempt to deal with diverse and dispersed wastes, laden with wide varieties of metal contaminants. At-source control technologies, such as sulfate-reducing bacteria; biocyanide oxidation for heap leach piles; transport control/pathway interruption techniques, including infiltration controls, sealing, grouting, and plugging by ultramicrobiological systems; and AMD production prediction and control techniques should strive toward providing a permanent solution, which of course is the most important goal of the program.

Treatment Technologies
Improvements in short-term end-of-pipe treatment options are essential for providing immediate alleviation of some of the severe environmental problems associated with mining, and particularly with abandoned metal mines. Because immediate solutions may be required, this area of research is extremely important for effective environmental protection.

Resource Recovery
In the spirit of pollution prevention, much of the mining wastes, both AMD (e.g., over 25 billion gallons of Berkeley Pit water) and the billions of tons of mining/beneficiation wastes, represent a potential resource as they contain significant quantities of heavy metals. While remediating these wastes, it may be feasible to incorporate resource recovery options to help offset remedial costs.

Recent Highlights:

Total expenditures during the period October 1, 2001, through September 30, 2002, were $3,687,532, including both labor and non-labor expense categories.


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