For over 40 years, taconite tailings, a by-product of taconite iron ore processing, has been used in
northeastern Minnesota road construction projects as aggregate. The dominant uses have been as
fill materials and in bituminous pavements. Over 125 million tons of tailings are produced
annually by Minnesota’s iron mining industry (Oreskovich et al., 2007). The Natural Resources
Research Institute (NRRI), University of Minnesota Duluth, has been involved in a multiplephase
project to evaluate the quality and use of this material.
When used as aggregate for bituminous pavements, the taconite tailings grains are encapsulated
in the asphalt mix that separates the tailings from contact with water. As fill, taconite tailings can
be in contact with water, intermittently, seasonally, or continuously. Do taconite tailings affect
water quality? In an effort to evaluate this question, a compilation and review of existing
groundwater and surface water chemistry associated with tailings in contact with water has been
completed. We evaluate water quality by comparing existing water sample chemical analyses
data to published State of Minnesota ground and surface water standards.
Data utilized for this study include: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports
from 1989 and 1999, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Keetac Pollutant Discharge
Elimination System (NPDES) permit water sampling data from several mines, and previous
investigations completed by the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI).
Based on our review, the data from water quality and taconite tailings revealed the following
1. Most Minnesota water quality standards are met. The exceptions include arsenic, cobalt,
iron, and manganese. Iron and manganese exceed secondary drinking water standards
that are based on attributes of the water like taste, odor, and appearance, and not because
of health risk issues. Arsenic and cobalt exceed the MPCA’s 2A chronic standard for
surface waters of 2 ppb and 2.8 ppb, respectively. These elements do not exceed the
drinking water standards or Class 7 surface water standards;
2. Mercury is typically an environmental concern. Based on the NPDES data reviewed, the
following information was noted. Chemical analyses completed on surface water
collected at three of the mines had the following reported numbers: maximum value 7.24
ng/L, minimum value 0.45 ng/L and a median value of 1 μg/L. Minimum and median
reported mercury values meet the most stringent surface water standard, the Great Lakes
Initiative, of 1.3 ng/L. Thirty-four water samples were analyzed for total mercury. A total
of 678 NPDES water sample data were reviewed. DNR reports do not contain mercury
data for water samples. Atmospheric mercury could add to the amount detected by
chemical analyses in surface water samples;
3. Iron formation contains arsenic, cobalt, manganese, and iron;
4. Taconite tailings do contain arsenic, cobalt, manganese, and iron. Arsenic occurs at a
minimum value of 8.8 mg/kg, maximum value of 39.4 mg/kg, and a median value of 17
mg/kg. Cobalt occurs at a minimum value of 4.4 mg/kg, maximum value of 15.4 mg/kg,
and a median value of 7.7 mg/kg. Manganese and iron were not reported as trace metals
but were included in whole rock analyses;
5. NRRI completed Toxicity Characterization Leaching procedure (TCLP) and Synthetic
Precipitation Leaching Procedure (SPLP) chemical analyses on three samples of taconite tailings. Results indicated that arsenic results ranged from < 2 μg/L to 4.3 μg/L, slightly
above the surface water quality chronic standard of 2.0 μg/L for 2A waters;
6. Further evaluation is recommended. Testing on taconite tailings samples, as well as other
typical aggregates, should include physical and chemical parameters. Testing on samples
of aggregate and water should be done to evaluate all sites by the same methods and
current detection limits. Analytes should include: RCRA metals as well as cobalt.
Additional testing should include grain size analyses and hydraulic conductivity; and
7. Mechanisms for the potential release of metals into surface water by tailings are
dependent on water characteristics such as pH, Eh, time, hydrology, and reduction
(redox) potential. Therefore, it is site specific. Additional testing of leachate from
taconite tailings is suggested using SPLP test methods and could include pH dependent
leaching and liquid to solid (L/S) ratio dependent leaching as described by Jambeck and
Greenwood (2007) and Kosson (2002). Data derived from these test methods may
produce results more applicable to use of taconite tailings as fill material in contact with
Natural Resources Research Institute, University of Minnesota Duluth, 5013 Miller Trunk Highway, Duluth, MN 55811-1442
Funding for the taconite aggregate resource study is provided by grants from Department of
Commerce, Economic Department of Administration with additional support from the
Permanent University Trust Fund, Iron Range Resources, Minnesota Power, the Blandin
Foundation, and Minnesota Technology, Inc. This project is part of the larger study.
Patelke, Marsha Meinders; Zanko, Lawrence M.
Taconite Tailings and Water Quality - A Survey of Existing Data.
University of Minnesota Duluth.
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