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An environmental evaluation of deep-sea mine tailings placement (DSTP)

   Scottish Association for Marine Science

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  Prof John Howe, Prof Andrew Hursthouse, Dr Lindsay Vare  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

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Deep-Sea Tailings Placement (DSTP) is the process whereby mining industries discharge processed mud- and rock-waste slurries (tailings) directly into the marine environment. DSTP can impact ocean ecosystems in addition to other sources of stress, such as from fishing, pollution, energy extraction, tourism, eutrophication, climate change and, potentially in the future, from deep-seabed mining. Environmental management of DSTP may be most effective when placed in a broader context, drawing expertise, data and lessons from multiple sectors (academia, government, society, industry, and regulators) and engaging with international deep ocean observing programs, databases and stewardship consortia. This project examines the challenges associated with DSTP using a long-term coastal and deep-water environmental monitoring dataset provided by the project partner, mine operator PT. Amman Mineral Nusa Tenggara, based at the Batu Hijau mine in Sumbawa Island, Indonesia. 

DSTP is based on discharge at the edge (usually 100–300 m depth) of an extended submarine drop-off, to a final deposition depth of 1,000 m or more, and at a depth below the euphotic surface mixing zone. Frequently submarine canyons are used, including those beyond fringing reefs in tropical mine sites. DSTP systems are designed to prevent tailings reaching surface waters. Any subsurface plumes or upwelling of tailings back into shallow waters could expose coastal environments to increased physical (e.g., suspended solids) or chemical stressors (e.g., metals/metalloids), where toxic components may enter the food chain and have detrimental effects on a wide range of marine organisms. It is important that tailings do not enter the mixed layer as coral species in tropical regions have been found to be particularly sensitive to increased concentrations of suspended solids (from Vare et al., 2018).

This project provides a unique opportunity to study DSTP using the ‘best practice’ operation exemplified by the Batu Hijau mine in Indonesia. The project aims to:

  1. Analyse the existing long-term monitoring datasets (biological, oceanographic & sedimentological).
  2. Devise new experimental approaches to DSTP monitoring, improving regulatory compliance (e.g., ecotoxicological significance through Cu speciation (e.g., such as application of the EPA Copper Ligand Model) and impact for tailings management from source to disposal).
  3. Evaluate the efficacy of DSTP numerical (hydrodynamic and depositional) plume and footprint models and assess the uncertainties surrounding their application.
  4. Participate in collaborative environmental monitoring to share best practice and identify the challenges associated with implementing a long-term monitoring plan.

The project will examine data for trends of changing environmental conditions and examine causal factors such as climate change or changing mining practices to identify drivers. This research, supported by the environmental team at the mine, aims to provide new knowledge with which to guide the mine to develop both more efficient practices and to ensure a robust monitoring programme for the future.

The successful candidate has an opportunity to participate in on-going environmental monitoring at the mine site in Indonesia and assist in designing additional or new sampling strategies to ensure a robust environmental programme that provides healthy seas and a sustainable mine for the future. 

The start date of this project is: 2 October 2023

The 3½ year studentships cover:

  • Tuition fees each year at Home (UK) rate. For International students, there may be funding available to cover the full international tuition fee and this will be discussed at interview.
  • A maintenance grant each of around £15,000 per annum (for full-time study)
  • Funding for research training
  • Part-time study is an option, with a minimum of 50% of full-time effort being required.

Applicants should normally have, or be studying for:

  • A postgraduate Master’s degree from a degree-awarding body recognised by the UK government, or equivalent, or
  • A first or upper second class honours degree from a degree awarding body recognised by the UK government, or equivalent, or

Other qualifications or experience that affords sufficient evidence of an applicant’s ability to work at the academic level associated with doctoral study. 

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Funding Notes

Funded by NERC, Studentships are awarded to the SUPER Doctoral Training Partnership. The SUPER DTP partner Universities are St Andrews University, Aberdeen University, Edinburgh Napier University, Heriot-Watt University, the University of the Highlands and Islands, Stirling University, University of Strathclyde and the University of the West of Scotland. Underpinning these research partners, providing additional training and projects are Marine Scotland, NatureScot, and the James Hutton Institute, among a total of 40 stakeholder organisations including industry and government agencies and international collaborators.


Vare LL, Baker MC, Howe JA, Levin LA, Neira C, Ramirez-Llodra EZ, Reichelt-Brushett A, Rowden AA, Shimmield TM, Simpson SL and Soto EH (2018) Scientific Considerations for the Assessment and Management of Mine Tailings Disposal in the Deep Sea. Front. Mar. Sci. 5:17. doi:10.3389/fmars.2018.00017
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