Phytostabilization of mine tailings using compost-assisted direct planting: Translating greenhouse results to the field

Juliana Gil-Loaiza, Scott A. White, Robert A. Root, Fernando A. Solís-Dominguez, Corin M. Hammond, Jon Chorover, Raina M. Maier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

109 Scopus citations


Standard practice in reclamation of mine tailings is the emplacement of a 15 to 90 cm soil/gravel/rock cap which is then hydro-seeded. In this study we investigate compost-assisted direct planting phytostabilization technology as an alternative to standard cap and plant practices. In phytostabilization the goal is to establish a vegetative cap using native plants that stabilize metals in the root zone with little to no shoot accumulation. The study site is a barren 62-hectare tailings pile characterized by extremely acidic pH as well as lead, arsenic, and zinc each exceeding 2000 mg kg− 1. The study objective is to evaluate whether successful greenhouse phytostabilization results are scalable to the field. In May 2010, a 0.27 ha study area was established on the Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter Superfund (IKMHSS) site with six irrigated treatments; tailings amended with 10, 15, or 20% (w/w) compost seeded with a mix of native plants (buffalo grass, arizona fescue, quailbush, mountain mahogany, mesquite, and catclaw acacia) and controls including composted (15 and 20%) unseeded treatments and an uncomposted unseeded treatment. Canopy cover ranging from 21 to 61% developed after 41 months in the compost-amended planted treatments, a canopy cover similar to that found in the surrounding region. No plants grew on unamended tailings. Neutrophilic heterotrophic bacterial counts were 1.5 to 4 orders of magnitude higher after 41 months in planted versus unamended control plots. Shoot tissue accumulation of various metal(loids) was at or below Domestic Animal Toxicity Limits, with some plant specific exceptions in treatments receiving less compost. Parameters including % canopy cover, neutrophilic heterotrophic bacteria counts, and shoot uptake of metal(loids) are promising criteria to use in evaluating reclamation success. In summary, compost amendment and seeding, guided by preliminary greenhouse studies, allowed plant establishment and sustained growth over 4 years demonstrating feasibility for this phytostabilization technology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)451-461
Number of pages11
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - 2016


  • Direct planting
  • Fertility islands
  • Mine tailings
  • Phytoremediation
  • Phytostabilization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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