“You kind of feel like an ant to them,” BYU student Mo Cartwright says, recalling being wide-eyed with wonder following the house-sized excavation trucks to the site of the team’s field work at Bingham Canyon Mine, the largest man-made excavation site and the deepest open-pit mine in the world.
“We’re all like little kids, like ‘Look how cool they are, they’re so big!’” Cartwright said recently at a lab on the BYU campus in Provo.
But the group of undergraduate and graduate students from multiple disciplines making their way up the steep, rocky hills in western Salt Lake County hauling heavy equipment on their backs have a big task of their own as well.
In between planting native species and recording the amount of water in the soil, students open their laptops and sign in to online classes, combining field work and lectures.
These students are working alongside Rio Tinto Kennecott to develop new, sustainable solutions for reintroducing wildlife to one of Utah’s harshest environments — the damaged, rocky hillsides surrounding the Bingham Canyon Mine.
This work began in early 2020, when a group of 12 students and 11 professors from the BYU Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences were brought together by Matthew Madsen and Brad Geary, two associate professors of plant science at the university. The group started preliminary work with Rio Tinto for about a year, visiting the site and discussing the goals that the company had for reclamation of the area. These goals ranged from reclaiming areas with less standard approaches to figuring out cost-effective ways to ensure seed germination.
Kennecott is working on a stabilization project on the southern dump site, a waste rock extension project and a cleanup of the groundwater, which the EPA found contaminated with high levels of lead and arsenic. The students’ project is distinct from the 2015 rehabilitation project on the mountainside.
“This is aimed at developing new practices that can improve our previous and future reclamation efforts,” said Kate Ruebelmann, environmental adviser for Rio Tinto Kennecott. “We want to show that we understand our rock plot responsibility and want to reclaim those areas and increase the beauty of our valley.”
How to grow a seed
Bingham Canyon Mine is not only damaged from the decades of mining scalping the soil of resources, but it also exists in a steep, rocky desert. Animals like elk and mule deer feed on seeds and saplings. The few grasses that can grow on the land go dormant in the winter.
One of Rio Tinto’s biggest obstacles to reclamation efforts is the land itself, so a key part of the research being done is how to grow seeds in adverse conditions, Madsen said.
Restoration ecologists almost have to make seeds grow against their natural instincts, and grow in an area where conditions are not ideal for their survival. If they don’t, plants may never grow in Bingham Canyon.
Inspired by epilepsy medicine, Alex Larson, a doctoral student in BYU’s chemistry department, created a way to give plant seeds a boost through a coating of hormones that slowly disperses over time.
“This is a hormone that’s been used before,” Larson said. “We know that it helps plants grow. The problem is when you put it into the field, it leeches off the seed with the first wet soil. So we’re trying to slow down how fast it goes onto the seed, so it can actually pop up at that right time: right when the snow has melted and the soil is wet, but before the drought hits too hard.”
Lab results on over 15 million seeds have shown positive results. Seeds without the hormone coating germinate 20% of the time, while those with the coat have a 90% germination rate. After a year of growth in the field, Larson says she’s seen similarly high germination rates in the coated seeds even after a particularly harsh summer and winter in 2020.
This study will be repeated over the next two years, with the team following the 14 plants undergoing treatment from germination to growth in Bingham Canyon.
Another way to foster a plant at the seed level is to apply another coating: a microbial layer. Bridget Calder, a graduate student in wildlife and wildlands conservation, is adding a bacterial coating of rhizobium that allows plants to be established in areas with poorer soil conditions.
This is especially important with species that grow on a disturbed site first. These are the foundations of a rebuilding forest — the grasses and shrubs that can later lead to larger plants and trees growing on the rocky hillside.
“By establishing these early successional species on the mine, it will help build up the soil and create conditions so other species can come in,” Madsen said. “If she can be successful, these techniques that we are developing could improve the efficiency of mineland reclamation and allow for larger areas to be revegetated at a lower cost.”
Once the seeds are planted in optimal locations, the team wanted a way to ensure they have water without a constant team of landscapers or a sprinkler system. Enter: the Waterboxx.
A Waterboxx is a localized irrigation system that looks like a round, grooved serving dish on top of a large bucket. Air condenses on top of it, leaving water that slides down tubes toward the seed. The evaporation cap on the bottom prevents water from escaping from the soil, allowing it to drain deeper into the soil. The seeds, in response, can grow deeper roots, which is vital for small grass species as they compete with quickly growing weeds.
Holley Lund, the graduate student spearheading the Waterboxx study, says that her goal is to help improve the view of the hillside for the entire year. By the end of the project, the team will have planted 656 shrubs and trees, each equipped with a Waterboxx to carry them through the drought.
The research is being funded exclusively by Rio Tinto Kennecott.
Roots for future projects
While these projects benefit Rio Tinto Kennecott right now, the projects extend further than Utah.
University of Colorado Boulder contacted the team about its work on accelerated hormone release in seedlings, hoping to apply that research to plants that grow in different seasons. With the new chemical coating being developed by Larson, the seeds could be tricked into believing that a season had already passed, breaking their dormancy at a predetermined time.
The University of Western Australia also collaborated with BYU on this research, applying restoration efforts to an iron ore mine in the Pilbara, also owned by Rio Tinto Kennecott.
The student projects on seed coating could even be applied to agriculture, says Madsen. The process is not a genetic modification, but an insertion of a hormone readily produced by the plant already. He anticipates collaborating with the agriculture department of BYU sometime in the next year.
More than anything, Madsen believes that the collaboration between different departments is what makes this project stand out from others.
“We can combine fields,” he said. “Ecologists might understand the problems, but being able to solve those is the challenge, so we bring in these other fields to solve these problems. We’re building up the BYU rangeland ‘Avengers’ team.”
Results of the research will be published in 2023. Several members of the team will be publishing their findings in scientific journals in the coming years, and Larson is seeking a patent for the hormone coating she’s putting over seeds.
“It may not be perfect, and we may not have all the right answers,” said Larson. “I know when I’ve talked to other people, they’re like, that just seems impossible.
“And it does seem impossible. But the only way that you can approach impossible things is by actually trying to do something.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bridget Calder was adding a coating of rhizomes to allow plants to be established in areas with poorer soil conditions. She is using rhizobium.