Rehabilitation of waste rock piles: impact of acid drainage on potential toxicity by trace elements in plants and soil.
The restoration of mining areas, in particular if they are located near towns or villages, is essential to reduce their potential risks for human health and to minimize their visual impacts. In this study, we assess the rehabilitation of a waste rock pile adjacent to the town of Tharsis (SW Spain). We measured vegetation cover and its diversity, and chemical composition of plants and soil, twelve years after remediation by lime amendments, added topsoil and planted vegetation. In general, the applied measures were successful covering with woody vegetation the upper part of the waste rock pile, and providing a greening visual landscape for the town nearby. The most abundant species were the gum rockrose (Cistus ladanifer) and the legume shrub Retama sphaerocarpa, this latter species most probably introduced in the seedbank of the added topsoil. Also in the soil seedbank, probably arrived the invasive Acacia saligna, of fast growth. In contrast, the lower part of the slopes was almost devoid of vegetation. We interpret that partial failure in the rehabilitation process as due to the acid mine drainage, which caused downslope a decrease of soil pH and increased availability of trace elements, thus impeding growth and establishment of plants. In addition, some plants, like C. ladanifer, growing at the base of the rock pile, had concentrations of Cd above the maximum tolerable level for animals, therefore representing a toxicity risk. Finally, we propose here an alternative technique to restore waste rock piles, by sorting and selectively handling the extractive wastes, thus reducing infiltration rates, seepages and the negative effect of the acid mine drainage. Those modified waste rock piles will be rehabilitated by the addition of topsoil and planted vegetation, as successfully worked out in the upper slopes of the study site.