Eastern Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center

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Development of Mineral Environmental Assessment Methodologies

Project: Objectives of this study|| Relevance and Impact|| Contacts

Objectives of this study

The specific objectives of this project are to develop and test the scientific infrastructure and methodologies necessary to conduct a national-scale mineral-environmental assessment linked to a national quantitative mineral-resource assessment.

One objective of the USGS Mineral Resources Program (MRP) is to provide unbiased research results and information on the environmental effects of mineral deposits in their natural state and environmental effects that may develop as a result of mining and mineral processing. The USGS is a world leader in the application of geologic and other earth science expertise to mineral-environmental issues, including:

  • Process-oriented mineral-environmental research;
  • Development of predictive geology-based environmental models (known as geoenvironmental models) of diverse mineral deposit types;
  • Implementing mineral-environmental assessments of abandoned mine lands, watersheds, or Federal land units; and
  • Serving as an impartial scientific arbiter on societally contentious, mining-related environmental issues at specific mine sites.

For the first time, the USGS MRP implemented a national-scale mineral-environmental assessment (MEA) linked to a quantitative mineral-resource assessment (QMRA) of the Nation that began in Fiscal Year 2010. The QMRA provided Federal land managers and decision makers information on the potential occurrences and magnitude of undiscovered mineral resources across the Nation. Drawing in part upon information provided by the QMRA, the MEA provided information that these decision makers can use to understand potential environmental issues associated with known and undiscovered mineral-resource occurrences. The MRP has successfully completed various MEAs at the site, watershed and regional scale. These earlier MEAs had the luxury of being able to collect extensive new geoenvironmental data for the areas in question, due to the relatively small size of the areas of interest. However, further method development was needed to conduct a large regional- to national-scale MEA that optimally integrates information developed in a QMRA and that, because of the scale and expense involved, cannot be heavily based on newly collected geoenvironmental data.

Information from this project will assist end users with, for example:

  • anticipating potential environmental or health issues that would need to be mitigated or prevented during future development of specific mineral deposit types in specific watersheds;
  • understanding baseline environmental conditions that existed in watersheds prior to mining or other human disturbance, so that appropriate restoration goals and standards can be developed;
  • prioritizing watersheds on a national scale for restoration from past mining-environmental impacts and protection from potential future impacts; and,
  • developing scientifically sound and effective mining-environmental regulatory policies that do not over-regulate but that appropriately minimize risks to the environment and human health.

Relevance and Impact

A major focus of the Mineral Resources Program for coming years will be the national quantitative mineral-resource assessment (QMRA), which began in Fiscal Year 2013. Methodologies exist for QMRA as a starting point for the new national assessment, but methods to acccomplish a national-scale MEA were still in need of refinement. Thus, the results of this project were essential prerequisites for the upcoming national assessement.

Environmental considerations have become an increasingly important aspect of modern mining. The mass exodus of the metal mining industry from the United States in 1990s, in part, was motivated by lax environmental laws in less developed countries. However, in recent years these countries have been enacting stricter environmental laws related to mining. Further, drastic increases in mineral resource consumption accompanying modernization and economic growth in developing countries has triggered a renewed interest in mineral-resource exploration and development throughout the world. Thus, in the future the United States may regain parity with developing countries for attractiveness for metal mining. One of the best ways to aid the decision making process for land use managers and the mining industry as a whole, both nationally and internationally, is to enhance our scientific understanding of the processes that control the environmental and environmental health issues associated with mineral deposits prior to and resulting from mining and mineral processing, which is the primary focus of this project.

Project Chiefs:

Robert Seal
Project Chief
954 National Center
12201 Sunrise Valley Drive
Reston, VA 20192
Email Robert Seal
Geoff Plumlee
Associate Project Chief
Box 25046 MS 973
Denver, CO 80225
Email Geoff Plumlee

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Last Modified: 18 January 2018