Collaboration: An innovative solution to a toxic problem

An American geologist and his team fight to restore life to a toxic ghost town in Oklahoma.

Picher, Oklahoma is a virtual ghost town. The streets are scattered with deserted stores, the churches and playgrounds are empty, and family homes have either been torn down or were abandoned long ago. These are the remains of a town sitting in the heart of the Tri-State mining district. But things could pick up for Picher soon.

American Geologist William (Bill) Andrews (U.S. Geological Survey) and his research team have potentially found a way to restore some life into the desolate town. The answer, they believe, is in the tailings. Tailings are mining’s waste material when the ore’s valuable minerals have been extracted.

Picher’s mine tailings are contaminated with toxic dust and frame the town in large piles. They are the remnants of a century-long mining boom that ended when lead and zinc prices dropped. High levels of lead were found in residents’ blood and tissue, and the toxic metals poisoned the soils, vegetation, wildlife and water. These health and environmental problems led to parts of the area be designated as the Tar Creek Superfund site.

Clean-up initiatives in Picher centre on these tailings. The coarse tailings are separated from the fine and sold for a profit to help pay for their removal. The fine tailings are considered to be of little worth, however, and buried underground in an attempt to lessen their environmental impact.

Bill’s interest in these fine tailings led him to choose Picher as a focus for his PhD research at the University of Oklahoma. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a project he could start on straight away: “I'd been working on the issue of metals recovery from mine tailings for several years but had never found a minerals economist with whom to collaborate,” Bill says.

He eventually put a request on ResearchGate and was contacted by Carlos Gavilán Moreno (Iberdrola, Spain). Their meeting online, as Bill puts it, “developed into a very successful collaboration.” He also got environmental scientist Robert Nairn (University of Oklahoma) to join the team.  Together, the trio explored how to make the clean-up process of fine tailings more economically and environmentally beneficial.

They analyzed the value of extracting aluminum, titanium, lead and zinc from Picher’s fine tailings. Reprocessing zinc and lead wasn’t found to be economically justifiable. Aluminum and titanium from the tailings could be sold for a profit though..

The team published their results in 2013. Now that it’s clear that there’s money to be made, private parties are currently investigating the possibility of recovering secondary metals in the area, Bill says. If they go ahead with the process it’s a win-win for all involved. There would be a significant reduction of contamination, and the economically-depressed communities residing nearby could start picking up the pieces from Picher’s toxic demise.