Disappearing copper—Genomics could solve a mystery happening downstream
Vancouver, BC – The licence to operate a mine has become more and more onerous, with mine development companies having to seriously consider the safety of the surrounding community and environment before putting a shovel in the ground. When complex geology and potential metal leaching is involved it can make this process even harder.
Casino Mining Corporation is planning to build a 22-year open pit copper-gold-molybdenum-silver operation in Yukon. As with all mining operations, the environmental concerns are paramount: as well as recovering as much of the gold and copper as possible, it also has to treat effluent that results from operations. This is where a novel genomics research project, funded in part by Genome BC, comes in.
“An early environmental analysis found something very interesting in the mineralised area of Casino Creek,” says May Quach, Partner and Aquatic Ecologist at Palmer Environmental Consulting Group (PECG) one of Casino’s technical consultants. “High copper concentrations exist upstream near the mineralised zone of the deposit, however, as the water progresses downstream there is a marked reduction in copper concentrations – considerably more than would be expected from just simple dilution.”
PECG has partnered with Dr. Chris Kennedy, a professor in aquatic toxicology at Simon Fraser University and the academic partner on the project, to help identify if a local community of microbes contributes to the observed downstream reductions in copper in Casino Creek. The use of community biofilm profiles taken at different sites in the watershed will determine to what extent microbial processes drive copper removal.
“If the data shows that some organisms are linked to roles in copper depletion, or to the ability to survive and grow in the presence of high metal concentrations, a natural remediation process may already be present for removal of metal contamination,” says Kennedy.
If present, this natural process may be harnessed within passive treatment systems at Casino, as a complementary process, or as a risk mitigation tool available to safeguard against contamination of the natural environment. This project offers Casino Mining Corporation high-quality data for a potential natural remediation process that may augment environmental models used for the prediction of metal concentrations over time. Additionally, this research has the potential to supplement or replace current best available technologies for water treatment systems, and could save mining companies and governments millions of dollars, while effectively protecting the receiving environment from contaminated effluent streams.
“The potential for application of genomics for these types of analyses is huge, but in the mining sector it is still in its infancy,” says Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO of Genome BC. “Genomics is an incredibly powerful tool to aid in understanding biological systems, which is why Genome BC is undertaking these types of path finding projects.”
The project, valued at close to $100,000 was funded through Genome BC’s User Partnership Program (UPP). UPP is designed to form partnerships with users to find research solutions that address the needs of the key sectors of the BC economy and directly connect receptors in BC economic sectors to new products, services, and practices that arise from genomics-related research. The UPP represents an initial investment of $9M for new research projects, with $3M from Genome BC. The remaining funds are to be provided by user partners and other co-funders.
About Genome British Columbia
Genome British Columbia is a catalyst for the life sciences cluster on Canada’s West Coast, and manages a cumulative portfolio of over $660M in 211 research projects and science and technology platforms. Working with governments, academia and industry across sectors such as forestry, fisheries, agriculture, environment, bioenergy, mining and human health, the goal of the organization is to generate social and economic benefits for British Columbia and Canada. Genome BC is supported by the Province of British Columbia, the Government of Canada through Genome Canada and Western Economic Diversification Canada and more than 300 international public and private co-funding partners.