Genome BC looks to help clean up mining wastewater

Source:  CanadianGreenTech   
Tuesday, 17 November 2009 
New research at Genome BC expects to show that harnessing the potential of microbes can help companies faced with cleaning up toxic wastewater from mining operations do a better job. According to the research organization, this method of bioremediation will provide an alternative to some current mine treatment methods that require large-scale employment of chemicals to treat water contaminated by metal leaching and acid rock drainage.

“There are micro-organisms out there that can do all sorts of things, including the detoxification of water. We are relying on the microbes that are already present in the environment to do this, and using genomics to determine how to create the conditions in which they will thrive,” said Dr. Sue Baldwin, the University of British Columbia researcher who will lead the $1.5 million project entitled, The Development of Genomic Tools for Monitoring and Improving Passive Mitigation of Mine Drainage.

Essentially, the micro-organisms digest the metal toxins in wastewater, sequestering them or reducing them to less toxic forms. One class of microbes in particular termed Sulfate-Reducing Bacteria (SRB), are known to be powerhouses in the clean up of mine drainage.

But SRB do not work in isolation. They rely on other micro-organisms to provide them with essential nutrients so they can thrive and carry out the detoxification. This is where genomics come in.

Researchers will study the microbial community as a whole, sequence the DNA to see how the organisms interact, and determine what sort of nutrients and conditions are necessary to ensure that they continue to do their jobs over time. They are gathering information from two test sites where they are setting up pilot treatment facilities. The sites are located at the Mt. Polley Mine, a copper and gold mine near Williams Lake BC and at the Teck smelter near Castlegar BC.

According to Baldwin, these treatment facilities don’t look any different that the surrounding environment. “The water would flow through a natural compost area which would serve to nourish the microbes, and this would be capped with grasses. It essentially looks like a series of grasses and water ponds.”

These treatment facilities are universally applicable and can be set up in virtually any environment where there is sufficient space, and customized to include the natural microbial communities that are found there.

“We have keen interest and active participation from the international mining community,” Baldwin said.

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