Lab Canada

Genomics to provide more effective treatment options for mining wastewater

Vancouver, BC – Companies that are faced with the challenge of cleaning up toxic wastewater from mining operations will soon have more reliable bioremediation options.

New research from Genome BC will harness the potential of microbes naturally present in mine bioremediation to help improve strategies for cleaning up contaminated mine sites.

This method of bioremediation will provide a valuable alternative to some current mine effluent treatment methods that require large-scale employment of chemicals to treat water contaminated by metal leaching and acid rock drainage.

Dr. Sue Baldwin at The University of British Columbia is leading the $1.5 million project entitled, The Development of Genomic Tools for Monitoring and Improving Passive Mitigation of Mine Drainage.

“There are micro-organisms out there that can do all sorts of things, including the detoxification of water,” says Baldwin. 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.”

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 members of a diverse microbial community to provide them with essential nutrients so they can thrive and carry out the detoxification.

This is where genomics come in. The 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.

The researchers 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.

So what exactly would one of these natural treatment “facilities” look like?

“No different than the surrounding environment,” says Baldwin. “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,” says Baldwin.

Dr. Alan Winter is Genome BC’s President and CEO. “We are very pleased to support this innovative research, which is helping to solve a major challenge in the mining industry here in British Columbia and around the world, and doing it in such a way as to not disturb the environment any further,” he says.