Yukon researchers look at potential pollution buster

Scientists at the Yukon Research Centre are hoping to find out if a common mineral could be used to prevent the spread of toxins from mine tailings.
Soil scientist Katherine Stewart is growing plants in a mix of metals and leonardite to see if the mineral prevents the plants from absorbing the metals. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Researchers in the Yukon are testing a new way to minimize damage from toxic mine tailings.

Tailings are what's left over after minerals are extracted from ore, often in a mill. They can be harmful to the environment including humans and wildlife.

Scientists at the Yukon Research Centre in Whitehorse are looking at a mineral called leonardite which can hold on to heavy metals.

Soil scientist Katherine Stewart says it might prevent the spread of toxic material from Yukon mining operations.

"The heavy metals would stay in the environment, but they would stay attached to the leonardite," Stewart says.

"So we would would say that they're not bio-available, meaning they can't flow out of your tailings compound to another environment, they wouldn't be taken up by micro-organisms in the soil, and nor would they go into the plants."

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The Yukon Research Centre just received funding for a six month project.

Scientists are growing plants in soil contaminated with lead, cadmium and zinc. Some of the soil also includes leonardite.

The plan is to see whether plants grow better in that soil, absorbing fewer heavy metals. The researchers say leonardite is a common mineral, so it could be a good tool for mine site restoration.