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Student research helps improve biodiversity at Rio’s Bingham mine

9th June 2021

By: Marleny Arnoldi

Deputy Editor Online

     

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A partnership between Rio Tinto Kennecott and the Brigham Young University (BYU) has started bearing fruit for improved reclamation at the Bingham Canyon mine, in Utah, in the US.

The mine is one of the largest man-made openpit excavations in the world, having produced more than 20-million tons of refined copper ore in the past 116 years.

A group of students and professors from the Utah-based university’s plant and wildlife sciences department in June last year broke ground on four research projects on land areas surrounding the mine, which aimed to increase plant diversity, stability and enhance the aesthetics of areas visible from the Salt Lake Valley.

Rio Tinto Kennecott and BYU have since set out to develop innovative and sustainable solutions for improved reclamation at the mine.

“This partnership is helping Rio Tinto Kennecott to continue improving the quality of its reclamation efforts and give our students the opportunity to learn skills that will benefit them in their future employment.

“The restoration we are doing in these areas can benefit Utah’s land and community by bringing back native vegetation, improving the site for wildlife habitat, air quality and the viewshed here in Utah,” says BYU plant and wildlife science associate Professor Matt Madsen.

Rio Tinto Kennecott MD Gaby Poirier says the company takes pride in its commitment to the environment, adding that the partnership with BYU is an important step in advancing sustainable outcomes.

“Joining forces with BYU professors and students to apply the latest environmental research to further improve our effort is extremely rewarding. This joint project is mutually beneficial for Rio Tinto Kennecott, BYU and our surrounding communities.

“We hope this project will be a stepping stone for future collaboration that helps improve reclamation work at other locations in Salt Lake City and more widely,” adds Poirier.

The partnership is employing 12 students on six different projects for the next three years.

Study objectives include engineering seed coatings to increase seeding success, understanding the vital role of Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany, more effectively establishing perennial grasses and improving the viewshed of waste rock areas.

CASE IN POINT

BYU graduate student Alex Larson’s Saints Rest biodiversity study is working to increase the diversity of plants on reclamation land by introducing shrubs and forbs that match the surrounding landscape, using a technique inspired by the process of how anti-epileptic medications work.

“When anti-epileptic medications are taken, the compounds that treat the symptoms are embedded in a biodegradable polymer, essentially a biodegradable plastic, which dissolves after ingestion, so it slows the release of the medication and increases its effectiveness,” says Larson.

She explains that the research team is applying this same method to seeds.

“We have a biodegradable biocompatible polymer coating embedded with a growth hormone wrapping the seeds we are planting. This coating will help increase the germination success on the site compared to what would exist naturally.”

Fellow graduate student Holley Lund is spearheading the Yosemite Waterboxx study nearby. Her team is working on growing woody species that match the surrounding hillsides.

Waterboxx irrigation technology maintains moisture in the soil during dry periods of the year so that seedlings can establish in the rocky soils. By the end of the project, they will have planted 656 shrubs and trees.

“Restoration has been done on this site before. It looks great during parts of the year; however, these particular species go dormant, turn brown and stand out from the native hillsides during other seasons.

“Our goal is to establish a woody species that will match the green textures of the surrounding mountainside, help with erosion and provide food for wildlife,” states Lund.

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online

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