Home » From Moonscape to Meadow: How Biosolids Revived a Toxic Mine Site

From Moonscape to Meadow: How Biosolids Revived a Toxic Mine Site

A former copper mine in Tennessee has been transformed into a green oasis with the help of sewage sludge

by Victor Adetimilehin

The Copper Basin Mining District in Tennessee was once a barren wasteland, where decades of mining and smelting had stripped the land of vegetation and polluted the waterways. But thanks to an innovative reclamation project using biosolids, the site is now a thriving ecosystem with grass, trees, and wildlife.


Biosolids are organic materials that result from the treatment of sewage in a facility. They are rich in nutrients and can improve the quality and fertility of soils. Based on a report by Mining.com, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the use of biosolids and ensures they meet strict standards for safety and environmental protection.


The Copper Basin Mining District is an EPA-designated Superfund site, meaning it is one of the most contaminated sites in the country. The mining operations, which began in the late 1800s and ended in 1987, left behind millions of cubic yards of soil and waste that eroded and washed into the Ocoee River. The site also suffered from acid rain, which caused the soil to become extremely acidic and inhospitable for plants.


The reclamation project, which started in 2018, involved applying biosolids to portions of the site to restore the soil pH and organic matter. The biosolids came from the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant in Chattanooga, which produces both Class A and Class B biosolids. Class A biosolids have the lowest levels of metals and pathogens, while Class B biosolids have higher levels but are still safe for land application.


The project faced some challenges and opposition from the local community, especially regarding the use of Class B biosolids, which have a stronger odor and require more restrictions. The project was temporarily halted in late 2022 but resumed with Class A biosolids, which have less odor and can be used more freely.


The results of the project have been remarkable. The site has gone from a moonscape to a meadow in less than a year, with green grass covering the once-barren land. The water quality has also improved significantly, with the pH rising from 2 to nearly 6. The site now supports a variety of wildlife, such as deer, turkeys, and birds.


The project is a partnership between Copperhill Industries, the current owner of the site, and Denali, a land reclamation company that specializes in using biosolids. Denali’s southeast operations manager Glenn Dowling stated that the project could complete Superfund reclamation obligations ahead of schedule and under budget.


Dowling, who was a former lobbyist for the Georgia Wildlife Federation, said he hopes to see more projects like this in the future, especially in former coal mining sites that have received funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and other Acts that have mine reclamation dollars in them.


“We see it as a way that we can contribute to the natural cycle of life – go back and reclaim what we’ve already used and turn it back into some more usable land where we see the public hunting and fishing and hiking and bird watching,” Dowling said.


Dowling said the project is also a great example of how biosolids can help sequester carbon and promote regenerative soils, which are essential for a sustainable and clean-energy future.


“In Georgia, they say all mine mining permits are reclamation permits. I want to help contribute to the success of those reclamation projects,” Dowling said.


Before environmental regulations were enacted, people dumped or improperly managed hazardous waste at thousands of contaminated sites across the US, including the Copper Basin Mining District.  The reclamation project that uses biosolids demonstrates how to restore and revitalize these sites, creating a positive impact on the environment and the community.


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