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University of Arizona

Superfund Research Program

Risk and Remediation of Metal-Mining Wastes

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 (2017-2020)

The University of Arizona Superfund Research Program (UA SRP) Center is investigating the human and environmental risks associated with metal mining. A majority of metal 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 human exposure routes and the fate and cleanup of mining contamination are different than for areas that receive more rainfall. This has led to a large knowledge gap in the health and environmental effects of mine waste systems.

The UA SRP is addressing two major issues within this overall knowledge gap. The first is the lack of understanding of mining waste behavior and containment and the relative impacts of airborne and waterborne spread of mine waste into arid environments. Mine wastes, particularly legacy mine tailings, generate dust-borne toxic metals (for example, arsenic and lead). These wastes also generate acid mine drainage, resulting in contamination of groundwater which is often the primary potable water source for surrounding communities. The second knowledge gap is a lack of understanding of the human health consequences of inhalation of mine dusts, specifically regarding the development of chronic lung diseases.

The three UA SRP Center environmental projects are focused on developing new technologies for site cleanup and on characterizing surface (dust) and subsurface (water) transport and fate of metals associated with mining waste both before and after cleanup. The two biomedical projects focus on defining the importance of inhalation exposures and health impacts of arsenic in mine wastes. Together, these results will be used to build conceptual and quantitative models to describe mechanisms of arsenic (and other metals) toxicity and movement from waste areas into neighboring communities or ecosystems. UA SRP's environmental and biomedical researchers use these models to: 1) develop exposure assessment tools that can be used to evaluate the risk for communities that neighbor mine waste or smelter sites; 2) evaluate the effectiveness of new surface and subsurface cleanup technologies; and 3) provide critical information on how arsenic, one of the most prevalent toxicants in mine waste, exerts its effects.

Project teams work with the Center's Research Translation, Community Engagement, and Training Cores to support the dynamic translation of this research to communities adjacent to Superfund sites, federal (Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry) and state (Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Arizona Department of Health Services) stakeholders, and the mining industry.

To further its impact, the UA SRP continues to develop complementary initiatives, such as the Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining, an industry-academic cooperative to move research results into the field in real time. The principle guiding the UA SRP is that its research should be innovative in advancing individual scientific fields. More importantly, it should transform industry-wide practices in mining to improve environment/ecosystem preservation and protect human health.

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