Crustal Geophysics and Geochemistry Science Center

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Risk-based applications of geoenvironmental mineral deposit models in mineral exploration, mine planning, operations, closure, and remediation

Environmental concerns are becoming key factors in the societal, economic, and technical viabiilty of proposed and ongoing mining projects worldwide. In recognition of this, the mining industry, land managers, environmental regulators, funding entities, indigenous groups, and environmental activists are all voicing support for the implementation of best environmental practices during all stages of the mineral resource development process, from exploration through mine closure. Such practices require 1) advance recognition of the potential environmental consequences that could result from the mining, and 2) the design and implementation of appropriate mitigation measures to prevent or minimize such impacts both during mine development and actual mining, as well as after mine closure. In the last several decades, there has also been rapidly growing recognition of and attention to the identification and remediation of abandoned historic mines that are sources of environmental degradation.

Many mining-environmental regulators and mining companies are increasingly turning to risk-assessment based approaches to predicting, mitigating, and remediating the potential environmental impacts of mining. Risk assessments attempt to quantify the potential threats (such amounts and compositions of acid-mine drainage waters) to environmental receptors (such as aquatic organisms in streams affected by acid-rock drainage) that would result from mining at a particular site, given various levels of environmental mitigation implemented at the site, and given the environmental conditions present in adjacent areas affected by the site.

The USGS is well-positioned to contribute to risk-based assessment methodologies. Over the last several decades, the USGS has taken a lead role in the development of mineral deposit models, which demonstrate that different mineral deposit types can be identified, with the ore deposits of each type sharing similarities in their geologic characteristics, geologic environment of formation, and, as a consequence, mining and mineral processing methods used to extract the commodities of interest.

More recently, USGS studies have helped to show that the same similarites in geologic characteristics among deposits of a given type also a) help define (along with climate) the potential environmental signatures that develop naturally prior to mining (pre-mining baseline conditions) and b) help define (along with the climate and mining/processing method used) the potential environmental signatures that develop as a result of mining and mineral processing. The USGS has added environmental information to the mineral deposit models (termed geoenvironmental mineral deposit models) that summarize important environmental geology characteristics of given deposit types, along with empirical data on environmental signatures such as compositions of mine-drainage waters and natural drainage waters present prior to mining. the geonvironmental models have been applied extensively in USGS studies, and are growing in use by economic and environmental geologists in the mining industry, mining-environmental consulting, and academia.

Appropriate next steps in the use of geoenvironmental information and models may include: 1) development of methods by which land managers, regulators and others lacking detailed training in economic geology can make use of the models; 2) application of the models to mining-related risk assessments; and 2) the incorporation of economic data on environmental mitigation and remediation into the models, so that industry, regulators, and other stakeholders can better estimate potential environmental expenses earlier in the planning stages of a proposed mine or of a minesite remediation.

Project Objectives

The primary objectives of this project are:

  1. To enhance the methods by which mineral deposit models are applied by a wide variety of users to help understand, assess, predict, mitigate, and remediate mining-related environmental issues.
  2. To develop ways in which the models can be integrated as key components of mining-related environmental risk assessments.
  3. To explore ways in which the models can integrate economic factors that would enable industry, land managers, regulators, and other stakeholders to factor environmental prediction, mitigation, and remediation costs into economic analyses of mining ventures.

Relevance & Impact

The geoenvironmental mineral deposit models continue to gain recognition in the mining and mining-environmental consulting industries. Land mangers and regulators are also interested in how the models can be applied in specific site assessments, but often lack the economic geology training necessary to make full use of the models. By designing and implementing methods by which the models can be more readily accessed by a broader spectrum of users, especially for risk assessment applications, the USGS will be able to help meet the growing needs worldwide for rapid, cost-effective mining-related environmental assessment methods.

Project Chief:

Geoffrey Plumlee
Box 25046 Denver Federal Center MS 964
Denver, CO 80225-0046

Phone: (303) 236-1204

Preparation of a workshop with potential customers, users, and collaborators

The primary objective of this task will be to develop the background material for, and then organize and convene a workshop on the use of geoenvironmental mineral deposit models. The main goal of the workshop will be to solicit input from potential users regarding ways that the modesl can be improved, expanded or otherwise changed to enhance their utility.

Statement of Work

A workshop for users, customers, collaborators, and other interested participants was held in September, 2005. The goal of the workshop was to provide USGS MRP projects and scientists with input on how their mining related environmental research has been applied in the past, and ways their research could be applied in the future to assist more effectively in mining-environmental prediction, mitigation, closure, and remediation strategies. Workshop participants include: USGS and other scientists who have worked on geoenvironental deposit models, deposit modeling, and expert systems/fuzzy logic applications; USGS and other scientists who have participated in various mining-related environmental assessments where deposit models have been or could be used; USGS and other scientists familiar with the risk assessment process; Federal and state land managers or environmental regulators who routinely deal with mineral exploration requests, mining-related environmental impact statements, mine closure issues, abandoned mine lands, or other mining issues tied to the environment; mining-company representatives active in mineral exploration, environmental planning, mitigation, and closure issues; private mining-environental consultants who regularly apply geoenvironmental models or other approaches to mining-related environmental prediction, mitigation, or remediation; mineral economists; and other disciplines identified as planning for the workshop progresses.

In fiscal year 2006, results of and recommendations from the workshop were summarized in a report to USGS MRP management. The report will be used to assist the MRP projects chart directions for future activities that will maximize impact and usefulness of USGS MRP research in mining-related environmental risk assessments.



  • Plumlee, G.S., 2005, The medical geochemistry of mineral deposits: 2005 Goldschmidt Conference Abstracts: Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Special Supplement, v. 69, no. 10S, p. A194.
  • G.S. Plumlee, 2004, Integrating appropriate scientific information into sustainable mining practices and mining-environmental regulatory policy: insights from recent studies of the U.S. Geological Survey [abs.]: CAMESA.
  • Plumlee, G.S., and many others, 2005, Interdisciplinary science in the international hot seat results of an independent assessment of mining-related engineering, environmental, and health issues, Marinduque Island, Philippines, University of North Dakota, seminar.


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