Sustainable Mining Focus of $650,000 NSERC Grant
January 09, 2014 - News Release
A University of Guelph and University of Saskatchewan project that will protect natural resources and help one of Canada’s largest industries has received $650,000 from the federal government.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) today awarded a strategic project grant to Beverley Hale, a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences and associate dean (research and innovation) in the Ontario Agricultural College, and Steven Siciliano, a professor in the Department of Soil Science and Toxicology Group at Saskatchewan.
In total, 77 scientific teams received $43 million in support from NSERC, announced in Vancouver by Greg Rickford, minister of state (science and technology).
Said Siciliano: “This project represents a national-level collaboration between two of Canada’s leading toxicology research centres, so we are talking about world-class expertise being focused on the issue of sustainable mining practices."
Their 17-member research team will collect and analyze samples from 18 contaminated soil sites across the country and develop new measurements of metal mixture impacts on soil microbes, invertebrates and plants.
“All of these organisms have an interactive effect on soil health, and understanding the entire soil biological system is key,” Hale said.
“If you do not have healthy soil, you do not have a healthy world. It affects everything from the water budget to how we grow food.”
The team will develop approaches to predict effects of metal mixtures in soil and will design new assessment tools.
“This is a critical need for the Canadian metal and mining sectors as well as the agencies that regulate them,” Hale said.
Currently, Canadian risk assessment for a mining site with multiple contaminants accounts for contaminant concentrations and toxicity of each metal but not the toxicity of the entire mixture.
“In the real world, we’re exposed to mixtures of pollutants. There can be many different metals all at the same time, and we don’t really know very well how these mixtures of metals interact,” said Siciliano.
“We assume right now, based on this theory, that we are protecting the environment. But if the theory is incorrect, than we are not being as protective as we thought we were being, or we could even be overly protective.”
Canada is one of the largest mining nations in the world, producing more than 60 minerals and metals. Worth about $42 billion per year, the industry contributes more than $8 billion a year in taxes to federal and provincial/territorial governments.
Mining employs more than 300,000 Canadians, and about 115 communities across Canada depend on mines and minerals.
Soil cleanup requirements are expensive in mining, Hale said. If current assessment tools over-estimate risk, companies pay more for unnecessary cleanups. “The higher purpose of this project is to correctly estimate metal risk to ecosystems.”
Unnecessary cleanups involving sealing of contaminated soil in concrete vaults can also harm the environment, Siciliano said.
“One approach to mitigating risk is taking soil that has taken thousands of years to develop, one of our most precious resources, and locking it in a vault because we think it’s dangerous: that is the tragedy,” he said.
“That is what I care about. Let’s not throw it out, let’s make sure we only seal away the stuff that is dangerous, because once we do, we’ll never get it back.”
Research teams will include undergraduates and post-doctoral researchers. “The students and post-docs will be given the skills needed to work in the industry directly,” Siciliano said.
The project is co-funded by Environment Canada; Mitacs, a Canadian NGO that offers funding for internships and fellowships at Canadian universities; and industry partners. Industry, academia and government have collaborated in this field for more than a decade.
“The approach to risk assessment for the mining sector is proactive and consultative,” Hale said. “Industry, government and academic stakeholders involved in the mining industry discuss the knowledge gaps and approaches to filling them. As a result, the outcomes of the research are incorporated as regulations are developed.”
NSERC previously funded two metals-related research projects involving Hale: the $3.5-million Metals in the Environment program in 1999 and the $5-million Metals in the Human Environment Research Network in 2005.
Kevin Hall, U of G’s vice-president (research), called this latest NSERC grant “significant and well-deserved recognition for Professor Hale and her research team."
“It’s a nod to her reputation as a leader in this field and her ability to use her expertise to improve the mining industry and protect the environment. It also brings recognition to the University for its leadership in turning research innovations into applications that benefit Canadians.”
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