Cleaning Up Polluting Mines With Plants–Plants That Then Turn Into Precious Metals

One enterprising scientist thinks we’re close to creating a whole new, much greener mining industry.

Nothing grows here at Walker Ridge. Oaks, pines, and wildflowers stop abruptly at the edges of a huge swath of bare earth. The dead zone–tinged an uneasy shade of green–stretches almost as far as the eye can see in one direction, down a slope that feeds directly into a watershed. Piles of dirt, scraps of rust-eaten metal, and a few crumbling bricks seem the only signs left of this Superfund site that used to be the home of a Gold Rush-era mercury mine. They’re not.

Downriver, fish have 20 times more mercury in their flesh than the EPA says is safe for consumption. Two hours south, mercury concentrations spike in San Francisco Bay during big floods. Geologists and hydrologists estimate that this abandoned mine–and at least 5,200 others like it in the state–will continue to leak poison for the next 10,000 years. With the costs of “remediating” a single polluting mine falling somewhere between $.5 and $7 million, the solution often seems to be to just deal with the mercury and leave the mines as they are.

But what if there were a way to monetize that cleanup, to turn Superfund sites, abandoned mines, and other metal-contaminated dead zones into desirable (and healthier) real estate?

In Dylan Burge’s vision of the Walker Ridge site, mining operations are booming again. Thousands of rows of deeply green, compact plants are thriving in the toxic soil, reaching for sunlight that filters through fabric tarps stretched overhead. Downhill (just below glinting banks of solar panels), metal-contaminated effluent from the old mine is being captured and piped back up to the plants, watering some rows while filling hydroponics for others. The mercury problem is under control, trucks are rolling off the site, and no one’s spending $7 million. In fact, people are making money. That’s because, as Burge sees the future possibilities, the world’s first loads of truly “green,” sustainable metals–mostly nickel from this site, plus a little gold–are headed for market.

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