Metal Lability and Mass Transfer Response to Direct-Planting Phytostabilization of Pyritic Mine Tailings

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2 Scopus citations


Understanding the temporal effects of organic matter input and water influx on metal lability and translocation is critical to evaluate the success of the phytostabilization of metalliferous mine tailings. Trends of metal lability, e.g., V, Cr, Mn, Co, Ni, Cu, Zn, and Pb, were investigated for three years following a direct-planting phytostabilization trial at a Superfund mine tailings site in semi-arid central Arizona, USA. Unamended tailings were characterized by high concentrations (mmol kg−1) of Fe (2100), S (3100), As (41), Zn (39), and Pb (11), where As and Pb greatly exceeded non-residential soil remediation levels established by Arizona. Phytostabilization treatments included a no-compost control, 100 g kg−1 compost with seed, and 200 g kg−1 compost with and without seed to the top 20 cm of the tailings profile. All plots received supplemental irrigation, effectively doubling the mean annual precipitation. Tailings cores up to 90 cm were collected at the time of planting and every summer for 3 years. The cores were sub-sectioned at 20 cm increments and analyzed via total digestion and an operationally defined sequential extraction for elemental analysis and the calculation of a mass transfer coefficient normalized to Ti as an assigned immobile element. The results indicate that Pb was recalcitrant and relatively immobile in the tailings environment for both the uncomposted control and composted treatments with a maximum variation in the total concentration of 9–14 mmol kg−1 among all samples. Metal lability and translocation above the redox boundary (ca. 30 cm depth) was governed by acid generation, where surficial pH was measured as low as 2.7 ± 0.1 in year three and strongly correlated with the increased lability of Mn, Co, Ni, Cu, and Zn. There was no significant pH effect on the lability of V, Cr, or Pb. Translocation to depths was greatest for Mn and Co; however, Zn, Ni, Cr, and Cu were also mobilized. The addition of organic matter enhanced the mobilization of Cr from the near surface to 40–60 cm depth (pH > 6) over the three-year phytostabilization study compared to the control. The increased enrichment of some metals at 60–90 cm indicates that the long-term monitoring of elemental translocation is necessary to assess the efficacy of phytostabilization to contain subsurface metal contaminants and thereby protect the surrounding community from exposure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number757
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2022


  • lead
  • metal lability
  • mine tailings
  • phytoremediation
  • phytostabilization
  • zinc

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geotechnical Engineering and Engineering Geology
  • Geology


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