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Naturally-Occurring Radiation: 

Copper Mining and Production Wastes


Soils and rock in copper mining areas may contain naturally-occurring radioactive materials (NORM):

Mining and extraction of copper by common surface or underground methods can concentrate and expose radionuclides in the waste rock (tailings). Another extraction method, known as "in-situ" leaching, can transport uranium and thorium into groundwater or surface water at the site.

Both of these methods expose and/or concentrate NORM, transforming it into TENORM (Technologically-Enhanced Naturally-Occurring Radioactive Materials). The table below shows typical levels of radiation in copper mining wastes.

Waste Radiation Level [pCi/g]
  low average high
Copper Waste Rock 0.7 12 82.6

The Radiation in TENORM Summary Table provides a range of reported concentrations, and average concentration measurements of NORM associated with various waste types and materials.

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Waste Generation

Copper mining wastes constitute the largest quantity of metal mining and processing wastes generated in the United States. The copper industry is primarily located in the arid west, with Arizona accounting for nearly 61% of the domestic copper production in 2005. Background soil radiation levels in Arizona are highly variable due to the widespread occurrence of uranium-rich source rocks. This results in a broad range of radiation levels in copper mine wastes. The variation depends on several factors: (possibly put in above heading)

The amount of marketable copper produced is small compared to the original material mined. (Copper concentration in ores ranges from 0.5 to 1.0 percent, with ores containing 0.3 percent or less typically rejected as waste rock). Several hundred metric tons of ore must be handled for each metric ton of copper metal produced, thus generating large waste quantities.

Because of the large waste volumes associated with copper production, the processing facilities are usually located near the mines. Copper production processes include:

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The vast quantities of ore, overburden, and rock are separated at the mine site and the rock is hauled to the waste site. The ore is crushed, mixed with other low-grade ore, and chemically leached to remove the copper.

During the leaching process, weak acids are allowed to seep through copper-bearing rocks dissolving copper and any radionuclides present in the soil. The leached liquid containing the dissolved copper, known as a pregnant leach solution (PLS), is later collected and further processed to extract the copper.

The liquid leachate may lead to TENORM contamination in the surrounding environment by seeping into the groundwater at abandoned and active copper mining sites. Because of these concerns, radiological surveys were conducted by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADQ) at selected sites throughout the state of Arizona. Measurements determined radiation levels in:

The surveys show that radionuclide concentrations vary greatly from one area to the next. Some sites exhibit radiation levels at or near background levels while others are above federal maximum contamination levels (MCLs) and Arizona state guidelines for groundwater and surface water contamination. Elevated levels of radioactivity were also found in soil and sediment samples. More detailed surveys of leach wastes are needed to characterize potential TENORM contamination, particularly in mines located in Arizona and New Mexico.

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In-Situ Leaching

During in-situ leaching, rather than removing soil and rock to reach copper deposits, acids are injected into ore bodies via wells. The PLS is captured in production wells and pumped to a leach plant where the copper is later recovered. High levels of TENORM have been found in the PLS of two in-situ leach operations in Arizona.

Dump Leaching

Dump leaching refers to leaching that takes place on an unlined surface. The leach solution flows by gravity through the dump pile to a collection point, usually a pond, constructed at the bottom of the dump.

Heap Leaching

In contrast to dump leaching, heap leaching refers to the application of chemicals to low-grade ore that has been crushed and deposited on a specially designed pad lined with synthetic or natural materials such as polyethylene or compacted clay. Copper heap leach operations are much smaller than copper dump leaches. On the average, heaps contain between 100,000 and 500,000 metric tons of ore.

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Solvent extraction

Once the PLS is collected it is sent to a solvent extraction (SX) plant to remove the copper. SX is a two step process. In the first step the PLS is mixed with an organic solvent that selectively binds to copper which is then physically separated from the rest of the solution. The now barren solution, known as raffinate, contains all the remaining elements, including any radionuclides that were dissolved in the PLS. In the second step, the raffinate is recycled back to the leach dumps as a lixiviant and the organic-copper solution is combined with an acidic mixture that strips the copper from the organic component.

Recycling raffinate back to the leach operations may exacerbate the occurrence of TENORM at copper mining sites because it can contain concentrated amounts of radionuclides. Analysis of water samples taken at the ASARCO Santa Cruz In-Situ Copper Project by the ADEQ show levels of uranium, radium, and radon to be 2870, 193, and 2410 pCi/L respectively in the raffinate streams, all well above their natural crustal abundance.

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Milling and Separation

Higher grade ores are further milled then concentrated by physical separation. The tailings are pumped to the tailings pile and the copper concentrate is transported to a nearby smelter.

Mill tailings may contain radionuclides due to their natural presence in the ore bodies and thus are a potential source of TENORM. Because the pyrite/sulfide minerals remaining in the tailings piles hae a much greater exposed surface area, they may be particularly susceptible to leaching of radionuclides. In addition, if pyrites/sulfides are exposed to the air and water, they may form sulfuric acid that will mobilize many metals including uranium, which is highly soluble in acid. This process is known as acid mine drainage (AMD), a natural process that occurs at many abandoned mine sites.

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Copper smelting involves three steps:

EPA's report to Congress on special wastes from mineral processing (EPA90) indicates that 2.5 million MT of smelter slag and 1.5 million MT of slag tailings were generated by copper smelting and refining facilities in the U.S. in 1988. However, the slag waste volume from copper smelting and refining is very small compared to the overburden and tailings waste volumes from mining and beneficiation (e.g., crushing) operations.

The ADEQ detected elevated levels of TENORM in the smelter flue dust at the Magma Copper Company's smelter and concentrator operations in San Manual Arizona. The exact source of the radiation is unclear, and it may originate from the ore concentrates, or the natural gas used in the smelter, or it may come from some other source.

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Disposal and Reuse

Copper mining waste piles may be as large as 400 hectares and typically include three types of waste:

Some of the copper mine wastes have been put to use, but on a limited scale. Mixtures of crushed waste rock, including waste rock from the copper mines, have been used to construct embankments, fills, or pavement bases for highways. Some studies have shown that copper tailings can be used in bricks if pyrites are first removed (EPA85).

A typical in-situ facility contains raffinate impoundments and processing facilities for the injectate (a lixiviant (leaching solution) of sulfuric acid with a pH of 2), a PLS impoundment, a SX plant, surface run-on/run-off facilities, an evaporation impoundment, a non-storm water containment impoundment, and ancillary facilities. The mining area is usually divided into discrete mining units. Recovery wells are constructed 50 feet to 200 feet from the injection wells, depending on the permeability of the formation. Once the ore zone has been depleted, it will be rinsed with fresh formation water until the aquifer meets Aquifer Water Quality Standards (AWQS) and Primary MCLs.

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Raffinate generated at copper mines is generally stored in ponds and recycled back to the leaching operation as a lixiviant. Following the closure of a mine, the raffinate must be disposed of.

Uranium-enriched raffinate may be considered a resource that can be exploited at relatively low cost through eulex-ion exchange technology, which removes the potential contaminants from the environment and contributes to the long-run profitability of the mining operation by reducing remediation costs.

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Smelting Wastes

Smelter slag is initially deposited in separate piles. These slag piles range in surface area from 1 to 30 hectares, and in height from 3 to 45 meters. As of 1988, slag accumulations in individual piles ranged from 0.5 to 21 million MT.

Three copper smelters (San Manuel, White Pine, and Garfield) subsequently process all their smelter slag either in a conventional ore concentrator or in a stand-alone slag concentrator. The slag tailings from these operations are co-managed at on-site tailings piles with the tailings from ore beneficiation. Slag tailings ponds range from 142 to 2,270 hectares, with an average size of about 600 hectares. Depths range from about 16 to 61 meters with an average depth of 46 meters. As of 1988, quantities of slag tailings in these ponds ranged from 240,000 MT to 3.4 million MT, with an average of 1.8 million MT.

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What Is Being Done About These Wastes?


EPA is conducting a number of studies on various sources of TENORM in the United States to better understand the problem. When the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality shared data with EPA on TENORM emanating from copper mines in mid 1992, the Agency began a study of the occurrence and distribution of TENORM at mines in the southwestern copper belt of Arizona. The following report is the result of that study.

TENORM in SW Copper Belt of Arizona (PDF) (124 pp, 2,470K About PDF) [EPA 402-R-99-002]
The data complied in this report show that leaching and related operations may extract and concentrate soluble radioactive materials. The results show increases of up to 100 times background levels for all radiochemicals tested except radon-222.

Current and Proposed Radionuclide Standards for Drinking Water (pCi/L).

  Federal 1976 Federal 1991 Arizona State
Radionuclide Current Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) Proposed Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL)

Human Health Based Guidelines


Ra 226 if > 5 20 None
Ra 228 if > 5 20 None
Uranium None 30^2 7^3
Rn 222 None 300 None


New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and California require groundwater monitoring for tailings piles.

In Arizona, in-situ projects typically require a joint EPA-ADEQ permitting process. EPA issues a federally-administered Class III Underground Injection Control (UIC) permit and an aquifer exemption permit that focus on the subsurface injection and restoration activities. ADEQ initiates an Aquifer Protection Permit Application (APPA) process that focuses on both subsurface activities and the surface facilities and impoundments.

Newly proposed in-situ operations must meet both of the following two criteria for an aquifer exemption:

  1. the aquifer must not currently serve as a source of drinking water and
  2. the permit applicant must demonstrate that the deposit contains minerals that are expected to be commercially producible.

The permit covers the construction, operation, and eventual closure of the injection and recovery wells system and surface facilities and impoundments. The permit also defines the lateral and vertical boundaries of the proposed aquifer exemption.

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TENORM in SW Copper Belt of Arizona (PDF) (124 pp, 2,470K About PDF)[EPA 402-R-99-002]

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