Mining Waste

Mining is essential to the economy of the United States, but historical mining practices and the absence of routine mined-land reclamation, remediation, and restoration have led to legacy sites with environmental and human health impacts. Typical remedial solutions are often lengthy, expensive, and unacceptable to the regulated and regulatory communities, as well as to the public. Nevertheless, gaining acceptance of new and more cost-effective remedial methods appears protracted and sluggish and is in need of stimulation.

Although traditional mining practices and regulations have changed, new mining operations continue to have waste issues that must be addressed during and after the actual mining operation. Some new operations occur in areas with legacy environmental sites where the actual material contains sufficient residual mineralization such that further development, remining, and subsequent reclamation of the waste is economically viable. Some current operations even have the infrastructure in place to co-manage the cleanup of legacy waste while in operation. This being said, current regulations, poor communication, and often combative relationships create barriers to these innovative approaches.

New mining operations see tremendous benefits by incorporating the idea of “sustainable development” into their business plan. Industry in general has found that by reducing long-term maintenance and overall wastes, their impact to the environment is minimized, thereby reducing overall operational costs. Pollution prevention and waste management are critical operational components in the mining industry, and innovative techniques and technologies (remediation, reclamation, restoration, and reuse) are the key elements for long-term environmental protection.

Since there are many issues related to mine waste, the Interstate Technology & Regulatory Council (ITRC) Mining Waste Team produced a white paper to briefly describe the current situation and highlight four areas that participating states and industries felt are most important. The paper conveys an understanding of the mining industry’s issues and introduces some of the innovative solutions to historical and current industry environmental problems. It was intended to build a solid foundation for future work by the team.

Four programmatic areas were identified:

  • pollution prevention
  • waste management
  • remediation, reclamation, and restoration and reuse
  • legacy management at mining sites

During 2007 the member states of the team described their primary issues (see Appendix B of the white paper—click “Resources & Links” on this page). As a result, two general problem areas have been identified:

  • Mining-impacted waters are difficult to treat cost-effectively to levels protective of human health and the environment.
  • Solid mining waste is not a specifically regulated waste and involves huge volumes of material. The volume of material alone makes some of the techniques for minimizing the risk unreasonably costly. On the other hand, the exposure posed by direct and indirect ingestion of some of this waste is a major health and ecological concern.

Based on the issues identified by the states (Appendix B) and the input received from the other Mining Waste Team members, this white paper concludes that the team should pursue the following activities:

  • Identify and evaluate emerging and innovative technologies that can cost-effectively and successfully be used to characterize, remove, treat, reuse, or stabilize mining, milling, processing, and smelting wastes and mining-impacted water.
  • Identify state or federal regulatory obstacles to deployment of conventional or innovative environmental technologies at mine-impacted properties.
  • Identify approaches and/or solutions to overcome regulatory barriers.
  • Identify innovative environmental solutions to solve legacy mine waste issues.

The Mining Waste Team has developed a new Web-based technical and regulatory guidance document, Mining Waste Treatment Technology Selection (MW-1),” which helps regulators, consultants, industry, and stakeholders in selecting an applicable technology, or suite of technologies, which can be used to remediate mining sites. These technologies may also be applicable to other sites.

Through a series of questions, decision trees guide users to a set of treatment technologies that may be applicable to a particular site situation. Each technology is described, along with a summary of the applicability, advantages, limitations, performance, stakeholder and regulatory considerations, and lessons learned. Each technology overview links to case studies where the technology has been implemented.

The Web-based guidance is located at