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University of Arizona

Superfund Research Program

Hazardous Waste Risk and Remediation in the U.S. Southwest

Center Director: Raina M. Maier
Grant Number: P42ES004940
Funding Period: 1990-2025
View this project in the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT)

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Summary (2015-2017)

The University of Arizona Superfund Research Program (UA SRP) is investigating the human and environmental risks associated with metal (hardrock) mining in arid environments and developing innovative remediation technologies to limit these risks. There is currently a large gap in the knowledge base of mine waste systems in relation to human and environmental health, despite the fact that the hardrock mining industry is the largest industrial polluter in the United States and many mining sites have become listed as Superfund sites.

Pollutants of concern include arsenic, lead, and many other metals as well as very fine particulates (dusts) that can cause and/or exacerbate existing health conditions. A majority of hardrock mining takes place in the western United States and other arid and semi-arid parts of the world. A central challenge for arid environments is that exposure routes and the fate of pollutants are different than for areas that receive more rainfall. For example, the wind-borne movement of pollutants associated with dust particulates is much more significant in arid environments. As a result, inhalation and ingestion (particularly by children) of dust becomes an important route of exposure in arid environments.

The UA SRP has put together an unparalleled group of scientists to address this challenge. The two biomedical projects center around defining exposures and health impacts of the metal toxicants in mine waste with a focus on arsenic. The three UA SRP environmental projects are focused on characterizing the surface (dust) and subsurface (water) transport and fate of metals associated with mine wastes both before and after remediation. The information obtained from the biomedical and environmental researchers will be used to build both conceptual and quantitative models that describe mechanisms of metal toxicity as well as the movement of metals from waste areas into neighboring communities or ecosystems both before and after remediation. Together, biomedical and environmental researchers will use these models to:

  • Develop exposure assessment tools that can be used to evaluate the risk for communities that neighbor mine waste or smelter sites;
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of both surface and subsurface remediation; and
  • Provide critical information on how arsenic, one of the most prevalent toxicants in mine waste, exerts its effects.

UA SRP researchers work seamlessly with the Research Translation, Community Engagement, and Training Cores to support the dynamic translation of their research to communities adjacent to Superfund sites, to federal and state stakeholders, and to the mining industry. They will also continue to develop complementary initiatives, such as the Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining, an industry-academic cooperative that is allowing the researchers to move research results into the field in real-time. The principle guiding the UA SRP is that the research is innovative in the sense of advancing individual scientific fields, but that more importantly, it also innovates change in industry-wide practices used in mining to improve environment/ecosystem preservation and to protect human health.

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