Environmental and socioeconomic assessment of impacts by mining activities—a case study in the Certej River catchment, Western Carpathians, Romania
Background, aim and scope In the region of the Apuseni Mountains, part of the Western Carpathians in Romania, metal mining activities have a long-standing tradition. These mining industries created a clearly beneficial economic development in the region. But their activities also caused impairments to the environment, such as acid mine drainage (AMD) resulting in long-lasting heavy metal pollution of waters and sediments. The study, established in the context of the ESTROM programme, investigated the impact of metal mining activities both from environmental and socioeconomic perspectives and tried to incorporate the results of the two approaches into an integrated proposition for mitigation of mining-related issues.
Study site The small Certej catchment, situated in the Southern Apuseni Mountains, covers an area of 78 km2. About 4,500 inhabitants are living in the basin, in which metal mining was the main economic sector. An open pit and several abandoned underground mines are producing heavy metal-loaded acidic water that is discharged untreated into the main river. The solid wastes of mineral processing plants were deposited in several dumps and tailings impoundment embodying the acidic water-producing mineral pyrite.
Methods The natural science team collected samples from surface waters, drinking water from dug wells and from groundwater. Filtered and total heavy metals, both after enrichment, and major cations were analysed by inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES). Major anions in waters, measured by ion chromatography, alkalinity and acidity were determined by titration. Solid samples were taken from river sediments and from the largest tailings dam. The latter were characterised by X-ray fluorescence and X-ray diffraction. Heavy metals in sediments were analysed after digestion. Simultaneously, the socioeconomic team performed a household survey to evaluate the perception of people related to the river and drinking water pollution by way of a logistic regression analysis.
Results and discussion The inputs of acid mine waters drastically increased filtered heavy metal concentrations in the Certej River, e.g. Zn up to 130 mg L−1, Fe 100 mg L−1, Cu 2.9 mg L−1, Cd 1.4 mgL−1 as well as those of SO4 up to 2.2 g L−1. In addition, river water became acidic with pH values of pH 3. Concentrations of pollutant decreased slightly downstream due to dilution by waters from tributaries. Metal concentrations measured at headwater stations reflect background values. They fell in the range of the environmental quality standards proposed in the EU Water Framework Directive for dissolved heavy metals. The outflow of the large tailing impoundment and the groundwater downstream from two tailings dams exhibited the first sign of AMD, but they still had alkalinity.
Most dug wells analysed delivered a drinking water that exhibited no sign of AMD pollution, although these wells were a distance of 7 to 25 m from the contaminated river. It seems that the Certej River does not infiltrate significantly into the groundwater.
Pyrite was identified as the main sulphide mineral in the tailings dam that produces acidity and with calcite representing the AMD-neutralising mineral. The acid–base accounting proved that the potential acid-neutralising capacity in the solid phases would not be sufficient to prevent the production of acidic water in the future. Therefore, the open pits and mine waste deposits have to be seen as the sources for AMD at the present time, with a high long-term potential to produce even more AMD in the future.
The socioeconomic study showed that mining provided the major source of income. Over 45% of the households were partly or completely reliant on financial compensations as a result of mine closure. Unemployment was considered by the majority of the interviewed persons as the main cause of social problems in the area. The estimation of the explanatory factors by the logistic regression analysis revealed that education, household income, pollution conditions during the last years and familiarity with environmental problems were the main predictors influencing peoples’ opinion concerning whether the main river is strongly polluted. This model enabled one to predict correctly 77% of the observations reported. For the drinking water quality model, three predictors were relevant and they explained 66% of the observations.
Conclusions Coupling the findings from the natural science and socioeconomic approaches, we may conclude that the impact of mining on the Certej River water is high, while drinking water in wells is not significantly affected. The perceptions of the respondents to pollution were to a large extent consistent with the measured results.
Recommendations and perspectives The results of the study can be used by various stakeholders, mainly the mining company and local municipalities, in order to integrate them in their post-mining measures, thereby making them aware of the potential long-term impact of mining on the environment and on human health as well as on the local economy.