The UA Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining (CESM) is an outgrowth of the University of Arizona Superfund Research Program (UA SRP), and was established by UA SRP Director Dr. Raina Maier (who also serves as director of the CESM) to enhance translation of UA SRP research to the mining industry. The CESM is guided by a technical advisory committee composed of industry members. One of our CESM successes is the development of an Academic-Industry Research Cooperative for mine waste reclamation. In 2014, the CESM, led by UA SRP investigator Dr. Julie Neilson, entered into a cooperative agreement with three global mining companies: KGHM International Carlota Copper, Rio Tinto Resolution Copper, and Grupo Mexico/ASARCO Mission Mine. The aim of the industry-academic research cooperative model, as envisioned by Neilson, was to accelerate technological advances in mining reclamation through enhanced research translation and by tapping into the collective experience of multiple mining companies. Like many of their counterparts in the mining industry, these global leaders have been working independently to identify low-cost and effective solutions for the stabilization of mine waste and the reclamation of mine sites through ecological restoration, or revegetation. These three companies also share another common thread: the belief that ecologically-minded strategies must be invested in, developed, and incorporated into active mining practices rather than addressed following mine-closure. While these needs are slowly being realized throughout the mining industry, thus leading to similar pairings of industry with academic researchers worldwide, the CESM cooperative goes one step further. The cooperative requires that all partners agree to share all information generated by the project, thus enabling member companies to participate in open forums focused on developing creative strategies for applying the collective research results to active industry operations on their respective properties.
The 2014 cooperative was launched with a commitment from each participant to cover 50% of its own project’s research and field-related costs, while the UA SRP and CESM leveraged State funds from the Technology Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) to cover the remaining costs. With the initial contracts in place, field work commenced at each project site to identify biogeochemical indicators such as pH, carbon and nitrogen content, and microbial potential in the subsurface environment of tailings piles; thus allowing for a more accurate quantification of incremental progress in vegetation establishment or ecosystem development. Ultimately, the goal of this work is to develop a more scientific strategy for revegetation and stabilization efforts.
The three industry partners were pleased with results and discussion from the initial 2-year research period and renewed their contracts in June 2016, each agreeing to cover 100% of the research costs moving forward! The UA SRP and CESM hope that this development marks not just progress in the cleanup of three Southern Arizona mining sites, but the evolution of technology transfer in a more open and collaborative forum.
In discussing their experience in developing the research cooperative, Neilson and environmental managers from the three companies talked of having a vested interest in improving reclamation technologies and cited the credibility of working with a group like the UA SRP (and CESM), which values both research and the translation of that research. The KGHM Operational Manager of the Carlotta Copper Mine in Miami, AZ, talked about the importance of the research work in recovering project bonds and documenting reclamation strategies: “As a foreign company, we appreciate the opportunity to demonstrate environmental stewardship in the U.S.” The environmental manager of the Resolution Copper Mine in Superior highlighted the value of taking the opportunity to work with CESM to generate up to 10 years of reclamation research work, prior to the start of operations of their new mine, to allow the incorporation of optimal reclamation strategies into the mine development plan. Finally, the ASARCO Mission Mine Environmental Manager talked of the importance of “taking a lead in innovation and concurrent reclamation strategies.”
The UA SRP congratulates Neilson and her team of graduate and undergraduate students on their successful efforts to work with the mining industry and address the important problem of mine waste reclamation. Neilson says that, “The success of this cooperative emphasizes the importance of including industry input in developing research questions, and even more importantly emphasizes that reclamation is an area where mining companies can work together to make revegetation more effective.” Further, she says, “I think that the collective experience of these mining professionals combined with university research capabilities will lead to more permanent and cost-effective reclamation solutions.”