Mine waste is dangerous to human and environmental health. The recent mine waste spill in Colorado is a stark reminder of that, but while details on the event may be sparse, the science behind remediation is not. Rupali Datta, an associate professor of biology at Michigan Tech, delves into how the heavy metals found in mine waste affect biological systems. She focuses on biochemistry and genetics to understand how metals are taken up by plants and animals--and how those metals are detoxed.
"The impacts from acid mine drainage affect the aquatic ecosystem mainly due to very low pH and high levels of bioavailable heavy metals," Datta says, "Which can severely affect the biological community structure." Datta collaborates with Dibs Sarkar, a professor of environmental geochemistry in Montclair State University, New Jersey who is also an adjunct professor at Michigan Tech. They work on an abandoned coal mine site in Southern Illinois, testing the effectiveness of a "green" technology that they have developed to combat acid mine drainage problems in impacted water and soils. Sarkar says the spill is not a unique situation and could have been prevented.
"This was a totally avoidable situation," he says. "It shouldn’t have happened with proper oversight, which unfortunately, is the case with many mine sites that produce acid mine drainage."
Acid mine drainage is a routine problem in surface coal mines and metal mines, but are mostly not properly managed and the sites are abandoned. This current spill, which is from the Gold King Mine into the Animas River outside Durango, Colorado is getting media attention because of its scale, which is so vast that it would be difficult to fully gauge its impact on the environment right away. Long term impacts of the spill on the Animus River basin will need to be studied carefully. Datta and Sarkar do say the Environmental Protection Agency has taken quick steps to tackle the situation.
"However, their treatment process is generating a huge amount of solid waste in the form of contaminated sediments that they have to deal with down the road, and I hope, they will look for “green” methods instead of just dumping them in landfills,” Sarkar says.
Datta and Sarkar are available for comment on the Colorado spill to better put the event in the context of remediation science and long-term impacts of heavy metals.You can reach Rupali Datta at [email protected], office: 906-487-1783 and Dibs Sarkar at [email protected], office: 973-655-7273