Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Carkovic A.B., Calcagni M.S., Vega A.S., Coquery M., Moya P.M., Bonilla C.A. and Pastén P.A. (2016)

Active and legacy mining in an arid urban environment: challenges and perspectives for Copiapó, Northern Chile

Revista : Environmental Geochemistry and Health
Volumen : 38
Número : 4
Páginas : 1001-1014
Tipo de publicación : ISI Ir a publicación


Urban expansion in areas of active and legacy mining imposes a sustainability challenge, especially in arid environments where cities compete for resources with agriculture and industry. The city of Copiapó, with 150,000 inhabitants in the Atacama Desert, reflects this challenge. More than 30 abandoned tailings from legacy mining are scattered throughout its urban and peri-urban area, which include an active copper smelter. Despite the public concern generated by the mining-related pollution, no geochemical information is currently available for Copiapó, particularly for metal concentration in environmental solid phases. A geochemical screening of soils (n = 42), street dusts (n = 71) and tailings (n = 68) was conducted in November 2014 and April 2015. Organic matter, pH and elemental composition measurements were taken. Notably, copper in soils (60–2120 mg/kg) and street dusts (110–10,200 mg/kg) consistently exceeded international guidelines for residential and industrial use, while a lower proportion of samples exceeded international guidelines for arsenic, zinc and lead. Metal enrichment occurred in residential, industrial and agricultural areas near tailings and the copper smelter. This first screening of metal contamination sets the basis for future risk assessments toward defining knowledge-based policies and urban planning. Challenges include developing: (1) adequate intervention guideline values; (2) appropriate geochemical background levels for key metals; (3) urban planning that considers contaminated areas; (4) cost-effective control strategies for abandoned tailings in water-scarce areas; and (5) scenarios and technologies for tailings reprocessing. Assessing urban geochemical risks is a critical endeavor for areas where extreme events triggered by climate change are likely, as the mud flooding that impacted Copiapó in late March 2015.