Margarete Kalin and William N. Wheeler
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.
The first treatise on mining and extractive metallurgy, published in 1556, mentioned the side effects of mining, namely dead fish and poisoned water. These same side effects are still with us today, even though our knowledge of extractive techniques and chemical processes has grown tremendously. The dead fish and poisoned water, we now know, are caused by oxidative weathering of minerals, resulting in acidic and metal-laden water. The weathering is exacerbated by microbes that break chemical bonds in pyrite to derive their energy.
To compound the problem, our insatiable appetite for metals and energy, combined with our development of industrial tools, has allowed us to dig mines vastly larger than those envisioned in 1556. This exponentially increases the weathering area available in waste rock and finely ground rock (tailings). Through infiltration of atmospheric precipitation, severely polluted seepages emerge from these mining wastes to surface and ground water.
Since metals are essential products needed in society, cost-effective remediation measures need to be developed. New sustainable approaches to mining need to be established. Currently, engineered covers and dams contain and reduce the infiltration of atmospheric precipitation, slowing the weathering process. However, weathering will continue for millennia. With this much time, covers will break down and dams will leak. Currently accepted practice is to integrate basic neutralizing agents (lime) to wastes or seeps in perpetuity. These and other stop-gap measures do not show any resemblance to sustainable mine development and reclamation.
What is needed is a paradigm shift in thinking about mine waste management. Waste rock and tailings need to be thought of as primitive ecosystems, characterized by harsh physical and chemical conditions. These harsh environments are similar to those encountered in the vicinity of hot springs characterized by highly acidic, or alkaline and saline conditions. These ecosystems are populated by thermophilic, acidophilic, and halophilic microbes (as a group called extremophiles), all of which can modify their surroundings. If managed properly, based on ecological principles, mines and these ecosystems will provide the resources of the future.
Ecological engineering utilizes ecological, geo-microbiological, and physical processes to change the conditions within the wastes to favor microbial remediation. To counter oxidative conditions, reductive environments and their microbes are supported with the ecological measures introduced. Reducing conditions can be generated in sediments and on the water-rock or water-sediment interphases through microbial growth. Gradually, contaminated acidic or alkaline water is cleansed by indigenous biota. These organisms sequester metal ions on or inside their cells and neutralize aquatic waste streams. Eventually, biomass (and metals) are relegated to the sediment, where they are bio-mineralized - forming new biogenic ore bodies. Re-oxidation of bio-mineralized metals is prevented by the introduction of underwater and emerging vegetation, which reduce mixing and consume oxygen above and at the sediment-water interphase. Natural cycles of oxidation and reduction have been operating on the planet for millennia, producing biogenic ore bodies, and are ecologically sound, sustainable approaches.
The Mississippi River, the longest in North America, is really two rivers geophysically. The volume is less, the slope steeper, the velocity greater, and the channel straighter in its upper portion than in its lower portion. Below the mouth of the Ohio River, the Mississippi meanders through a continental depression that it has slowly filled with sediment over many millennia. Some limnologists and hydrologists consider the transitional middle portion of the Mississippi, where the waters of its two greatest tributaries, the Missouri and Ohio rivers, join it, to comprise a third river, in terms of its behavioral patterns and stream and floodplain ecologies.
The Mississippi River humans have known, with its two or three distinct sections, is a relatively recent formation. The lower Mississippi only settled into its current formation following the last ice age and the dissipation of water released by receding glaciers. Much of the current river delta is newer still, having taken shape over the last three to five hundred years.
Within the lower section of the Mississippi are two subsections, the meander zone and the delta. Below Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the river passes through Crowley’s Ridge and enters the wide and flat alluvial plain. Here the river meanders in great loops, often doubling back on itself, forming cut offs that, if abandoned by the river, forming lakes. Until modern times, most of the plain, approximately 35,000 square miles, comprised a vast and rich—rich in terms of biomass production—ecological wetland sustained by annual Mississippi River floods that brought not just water, but fertile sediment—topsoil—gathered from across much of the continent. People thrived in the Mississippi River meander zone. Some of the most sophisticated indigenous cultures of North America emerged here. Between Natchez, Mississippi, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Old River Control, the Mississippi begins to fork into distributary channels, the largest of which is the Atchafalaya River. The Mississippi River delta begins here, formed of river sediment accrued upon the continental shelf. In the delta the land is wetter, the ground water table is shallower. Closer to the sea, the water becomes brackish and patterns of river sediment distribution are shaped by ocean tides and waves. The delta is frequently buffeted by hurricanes.
Over the last century and a half people have transformed the lower Mississippi River, principally through the construction of levees and drainage canals that have effectively disconnected the river from the floodplain. The intention has been to dry the land adjacent to the river, to make it useful for agriculture and urban development. However, an unintended effect of flood control and wetland drainage has been to interfere with the flood-pulse process that sustained the lower valley ecology, and with the process of sediment distribution that built the delta and much of the Louisiana coastline. The seriousness of the delta’s deterioration has become especially apparent since Hurricane Katrina, and has moved conservation groups to action. They are pushing politicians and engineers to reconsider their approach to Mississippi River management.
Archis R. Ambulkar
Since the industrial revolution, societies across the globe have observed significant urbanization and population growth. Newer technologies, industries, and manufacturing plants have evolved over the period to develop sophisticated infrastructures and amenities for mankind. To achieve this, communities have utilized and exploited natural resources, resulting in sustained environmental degradation and pollution. Among various adverse ecological effects, nutrient contamination in water is posing serious problems for the water bodies worldwide.
Nitrogen and phosphorus are the basic constituents for the growth and reproduction of living organisms and occur naturally in the soil, air, and water. However, human activities are affecting their natural cycles and causing excessive dumping into the surface and groundwater systems. Higher concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus-based nutrients in water resources lead to eutrophication, reduction in sunlight, lower dissolved oxygen levels, changing rates of plant growth, reproduction patterns, and overall deterioration of water quality. Economically, this pollution can impact the fishing industry, recreational businesses, property values, and tourism. Also, using nutrient-polluted lakes or rivers as potable water sources may result in excess nitrates in drinking water, production of disinfection by-products, and associated health effects.
Nutrients contamination in water commonly originates from point and non-point sources. Point sources are the specific discharge locations, like wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), industries, and municipal waste systems; whereas, non-point sources are discrete dischargers, like agricultural lands and storm water runoffs. Compared to non-point sources, point sources are easier to identify, regulate, and treat. WWTPs receive sewage from domestic, business, and industrial settings. With growing pollution concerns, nutrients removal and recovery at treatment plants is gaining significant attention. Newer chemical and biological nutrient removal processes are emerging to treat wastewater. Nitrogen removal mainly involves nitrification-denitrification processes; whereas, phosphorus removal includes biological uptake, chemical precipitation, or filtration. In regards to non-point sources, authorities are encouraging best management practices to control pollution loads to waterways.
Governments are opting for novel strategies like source nutrient reduction schemes, bioremediation processes, stringent effluent limits, and nutrient trading programs. Source nutrient reduction strategies such as discouraging or banning use of phosphorus-rich detergents and selective chemicals, industrial pretreatment programs, and stormwater management programs can be effective by reducing nutrient loads to WWTPs. Bioremediation techniques such as riparian areas, natural and constructed wetlands, and treatment ponds can capture nutrients from agricultural lands or sewage treatment plant effluents. Nutrient trading programs allow purchase/sale of equivalent environmental credits between point and non-point nutrient dischargers to manage overall nutrient discharges in watersheds at lower costs.
Nutrient pollution impacts are quite evident and documented in many parts of the world. Governments and environmental organizations are undertaking several waterways remediation projects to improve water quality and restore aquatic ecosystems. Shrinking freshwater reserves and rising water demands are compelling communities to make efficient use of the available water resources. With smarter choices and useful strategies, nutrient pollution in the water can be contained to a reasonable extent. As responsible members of the community, it is important for us to understand this key environmental issue as well as to learn the current and future needs to alleviate this problem.
Gerrit de Rooij
Henry Darcy was an engineer who built the drinking water supply system of the French city of Dijon in the mid-19th century. In doing so, he developed an interest in the flow of water through sands, and, together with Charles Ritter, he experimented (in a hospital, for unclear reasons) with water flow in a vertical cylinder filled with different sands to determine the laws of flow of water through sand. The results were published in an appendix to Darcy’s report on his work on Dijon’s water supply. Darcy and Ritter installed mercury manometers at the bottom and near the top of the cylinder, and they observed that the water flux density through the sand was proportional to the difference between the mercury levels. After mercury levels are converted to equivalent water levels and recast in differential form, this relationship is known as Darcy’s Law, and until this day it is the cornerstone of the theory of water flow in porous media. The development of groundwater hydrology and soil water hydrology that originated with Darcy’s Law is tracked through seminal contributions over the past 160 years.
Darcy’s Law was quickly adopted for calculating groundwater flow, which blossomed after the introduction of a few very useful simplifying assumptions that permitted a host of analytical solutions to groundwater problems, including flows toward pumped drinking water wells and toward drain tubes. Computers have made possible ever more advanced numerical solutions based on Darcy’s Law, which have allowed tailor-made computations for specific areas. In soil hydrology, Darcy’s Law itself required modification to facilitate its application for different soil water contents. The understanding of the relationship between the potential energy of soil water and the soil water content emerged early in the 20th century. The mathematical formalization of the consequences for the flow rate and storage change of soil water was established in the 1930s, but only after the 1970s did computers become powerful enough to tackle unsaturated flows head-on. In combination with crop growth models, this allowed Darcy-based models to aid in the setup of irrigation practices and to optimize drainage designs. In the past decades, spatial variation of the hydraulic properties of aquifers and soils has been shown to affect the transfer of solutes from soils to groundwater and from groundwater to surface water. More recently, regional and continental-scale hydrology have been required to quantify the role of the terrestrial hydrological cycle in relation to climate change. Both developments may pose new areas of application, or show the limits of applicability, of a law derived from a few experiments on a cylinder filled with sand in the 1850s.