Trace Changes: Mining Reformation in Ecuador

Here in America we often take our clean water for granted. With laws to regulate pollution run off from sources such as mining, we are generally able to access clean water at any given time, usually through something as simple as turning on our kitchen faucet.

That convenience is not something that extends to our South American neighbors, and what initially began as a research project on selenium discharges in the Great Salt Lake, has led William Johnson, Professor in the Geology and Geophysics Department of the University of Utah, to be pioneering research in Ecuador regarding water contamination.

Johnson’s initial work with selenium traces in the Great Salt Lake was what led him to Ecuador. Looking to aid one of his graduate students in continuing his passion for work involving trace contaminants in water supplies, he looked to the possibility of research in the heavily contaminated waterways of Ecuador.

“They have a lot of work to be done down there [in Ecuador], because they have huge mining impact due to their mining industry being undeveloped,” Johnson said.

The mining issues that Ecuador is currently dealing with are significant. Unlike the United States, their mining efforts are unrefined, unorganized, and for the most part, unregulated. Much of the equipment and facilities currently used to mine in Ecuador were abandoned by American investors in the 1950’s and 60’s. In subsequent years, the Ecuadorian public moved in and began informally mining. The resulting pollution has led to large amounts of trace toxins such as manganese and mercury running into the ground water supplies of those living nearby.

“They don’t have the regulatory framework or the infrastructure to get ahead of the informal mining and prevent its impact,” Johnson said. “They can’t marginalize it either, because it’s so lucrative that the people need to continue [for financial stability], so instead they’re trying to find ways to work with it, but they just don’t have the capacity.”

The resulting research opportunity came about for Johnson in 2009 when he and a number of graduate students did some initial sampling of the mining impacted rivers in Ecuador. With Ecuadorian officials thoroughly interested in their findings, Johnson was able to schedule additional research trips through Study Abroad in 2012 and again in 2014.

The 2012 trip allowed Johnson along with the Ecuadorian government to bring in experts from both North and South America in an effort to discover where the government could best organize its efforts in preventing water pollution as a result of mining. While in 2014 Johnson’s Study Abroad trip allowed students from the University of Utah to gather a greater number of water and core samples from a larger area.

“In 2012 and 2014 I tried to create a sort of student ‘Boot Camp,’” Johnson said. “They got to go out into the field and see what sort of strategies you have to use to get a good sample and how to gather many samples as a coordinated group.”

The results of all three research sampling trips revealed a consistent level of trace toxins including manganese which is linked to problems with decreased brain functionality at higher concentrations. They additionally found consistent levels of these trace toxins within hair and nail samples from the local residents.

The added benefit of placing students directly in the field to do this type of research work is something that Johnson believes to be invaluable as a tool for learning.

“The students now have gone from a classroom oriented setting where they are handed a very constrained problem through homework or an exam, to something that is completely open-ended,” Johnson said. “Instead they are put into a context that is completely unconstrained. So they have to think about how to constrain it. How much sampling can they do? And over how large of an area? And how do they deal with even just the logistics of getting the equipment over there? These are all things they have to consider.”

Johnson’s hopes for the future of this research are high; not only for the potential learning opportunities it represents, but also for the aid it could bring to Ecuador in the future.

“We have a National Science Foundation proposal in right now to try and turn this into a much bigger project,” Johnson said. “We hope to build capacity in Ecuador as well as the scientific issues related to the contamination.”

The National Science Foundation proposal is still in its early pre-proposal stage, but if approved would allow Johnson, along with a number of colleagues from a range of disciplines to submit a full proposal in May 2015.

The resulting proposal would allow for a four million dollar, interdisciplinary research project in Ecuador that would not only allow for his Study Abroad class to become an annual endeavor, but also incorporate cross discipline research from the Mines and Earth Sciences Department along with the Social Behavioral, Engineering and Public Health programs.

The ultimate goal of the research, Johnson said, would be three fold. They would like to develop a practical theory for a quick and efficient through put system of treatment to remove the trace particle contaminants from the rivers and ground water in Ecuador.

Additionally the research would focus on finding a discernable link between the particle contamination found in the water and the trace amounts of toxin found in the Ecuadorian local’s hair and nails.

And finally to attempt to create a socio-economic incentive for the local Ecuadorian miners to capture the contaminants coming from their mining to sell as trace elements on the market.

The benefits of this research would of course return to Utah as well. Not only would the research be of benefit to numerous students at the University of Utah both in the classroom and abroad, but the theory development could be used here as well.

“If we can develop a theory that would support good design to remove trace particles quickly and efficiently that can be applied to a lot of contextual problems here in Utah,” Johnson said.

In particular, he cited Utah’s need for a better filtration system for our storm run off as well as the potential to learn a process for lower energy usage within the filtration system. Utah may have power to spare at the moment, but the ability to save even when it is plentiful would be of great benefit to the state.

Ultimately, Johnson feels that the research going on in Ecuador has been a boon to both he and the students who have been able to participate.

“In every case, when students were put into a research situation, they really rose to the challenge and invested themselves in making sure that something good came out of the effort,” Johnson said. “The real value of international experience is that it puts students in a context that tests them in real ways that don’t exist in the classroom.”

For more information on the University of Utah Geology and Geophysics department: