Ensuring that contaminants left behind from mines in northern Ontario don’t get into our water will be the focus of a UWindsor researcher who received an award geared towards training scientists and technicians of the future.
Chris Weisener, an associate professor in biogeochemistry at the Great Lakes Institute of Environmental Research, will use the $150,000 Early Researcher Award he received from the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation to support three graduate students and two post-doctoral fellows.
Most of Dr. Weisener’s research is aimed at understanding how naturally occurring microbes break down left over minerals from mining operations which can often leach metals into wetlands and contaminate the water table in the Great Lakes basin.
Mining operations often disturb rock layers, exposing to air and water metal containing sulfide minerals such as pyrite. When the metal sulfide oxidizes, it creates acid mine drainage, releasing contaminated metal—waste rock or the fine-grained residue from an ore processing plant—which can leach into groundwater and freshwater basins.
“Over time, the run-off from old mines worsens and becomes more acidic and burdened with toxic metals and that can affect the health of an ecosystem for generations” he said. “We’re essentially trying to understand the behaviour of some of these nasty materials and discover ways of sustainable treatment through microbiology.”
The mining industry has been receptive to developing green technology and remediation methods, but new data will help regulatory agencies that oversee waste management develop better strategies to prevent groundwater contamination, Weisener said. The provincial government is searching for environmentally sustainable approaches to decommission orphaned mine waste management areas, he said.
“They’re very aware of it and the willingness to work with industry and researchers is tremendous,” he added.
The work will allow him to train much-needed highly qualified personnel in applied biogeochemistry which has the potential to contribute to the commercialization of sustainable remediation technology, adding to Ontario’s economy, and establishing the province as a global authority on mine waste restoration, Weisener said.
Early Researcher Awards help promising researchers build their teams of undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, research assistants, associates, and technicians. The program aims to improve Ontario’s ability to attract and retain the best and brightest research talent.