Phytostabilisation use of wetland plants to treat mine tailings

University dissertation from Stockholm : Botaniska institutionen

Abstract: Mine tailings can be rich in sulphide minerals and may form acid mine drainage (AMD) through reaction with atmospheric oxygen and water. AMD contains elevated levels of metals and arsenic (As) that could be harmful to animals and plants. An oxygen-consuming layer of organic material and plants on top of water-covered tailings would probably reduce oxygen penetration into the tailings and thus reduce the formation of AMD. However, wetland plants have the ability to release oxygen through the roots and could thereby increase the solubility of metals and As. These elements are released into the drainage water, taken up and accumulated in the plant roots, or translocated to the shoots. The aim was to examine the effects of plant establishment on water-covered mine tailings by answering following questions: A) Is plant establishment on water-covered mine tailings possible? B) What are the metal and As uptake and translocation properties of these plants? C) How do plants affect metal and As release from mine tailings, and which are the mechanisms involved?Carex rostrata Stokes, Eriophorum angustifolium Honck., E. scheuchzeri Hoppe, Phragmites australis (Cav.) Steud., Salix phylicifolia L. and S. borealis Fr. were used as test plants. Influences of plants on the release of As, Cd, Cu, Pb, Zn and in some cases Fe in the drainage water, and plant element uptake were studied in greenhouse experiments and in the field. The results obtained demonstrate that plant establishment are possible on water-covered unweathered mine tailings, and a suitable amendment was found to be sewage sludge. On acidic, weathered tailings, a pH increasing substance such as ashes should be added to improve plant establishment. The metal and As concentrations of the plant tissue were found to be generally higher in roots than in shoots. The uptake was dependent on the metal and As concentrations of the tailings and the release of organic acids from plant roots may have influenced the uptake. The metal release from tailings into the drainage water caused by E. angustifolium was found to depend greatly on the age and chemical properties of the tailings. However, no effects of E. angustifolium on As release was found. Water from old sulphide-, metal- and As-rich tailings with low buffering capacity were positively affected by E. angustifolium by causing higher pH and lower metal concentrations. In tailings with relatively low sulphide, metal and As contents combined with a low buffering capacity, plants had the opposite impact, i.e. a reduction in pH and elevated metal levels of the drainage water. The total release of metal and As from the tailings, i.e. drainage water together with the contents in shoots and roots, was found to be similar for C. rostrata, E. angustifolium and P. australis, except for Fe and As, where the release was highest for P. australis. The differences in metal and As release from mine tailings were mainly found to be due to the release of O2 from the roots, which changes the redox potential. Release of organic acids from the roots slightly decreased the pH, although did not have any particular influence on the release of metal and As. In conclusion, as shown here, phytostabilisation may be a successful technique for remediation of mine tailings with high element and sulphide levels, and low buffering capacity.