Mine drainage from mercury mines in the California Coast Range mercury mineral belt is an environmental concern because of its acidity and high sulfate, mercury, and methylmercury concentrations. Two types of mercury deposits are present in the mineral belt, silica-carbonate and hot-spring type. Mine drainage is associated with both deposit types but more commonly with the silica-carbonate type because of the extensive underground workings present at these mines. Mercury ores consisting primarily of cinnabar were processed in rotary furnaces and retorts and elemental mercury recovered from condensing systems. During the roasting process mercury phases more soluble than cinnabar are formed and concentrated in the mine tailings, commonly termed calcines. Differences in mineralogy and trace metal geochemistry between the two deposit types are reflected in mine drainage composition. Silica-carbonate type deposits have higher iron sulfide content than hot- spring type deposits and mine drainage from these deposits may have extreme acidity and very high concentrations of iron and sulfate. Mercury and methylmercury concentrations in mine drainage are relatively low at the point of discharge from mine workings. The concentration of both mercury species increases significantly in mine drainage that flows through and reacts with calcines. The soluble mercury phases in the calcines are dissolved and sulfate is added such that methylation of mercury by sulfate reducing bacteria is enhanced in calcines that are saturated with mine drainage. Where mercury mine drainage enters and first mixes with stream water, the addition of high concentrations of mercury and sulfate generates a favorable environment for methylation of mercury. Mixing of oxygenated stream water with mine drainage causes oxidation of dissolved iron(II) and precipitation of iron oxyhydroxide that accumulates in the streambed. Both mercury and methylmercury are strongly adsorbed onto iron oxyhydroxide over the pH range of 3.2-7.1 in streams impacted by mine drainage. The dissolved fraction of both mercury species is depleted and concentrated in iron oxyhydroxide such that the amount of iron oxyhydroxide in the water column reflects the concentration of mercury species. In streams impacted by mine drainage, mercury and methylmercury are transported and adsorbed onto particulate phases. During periods of low stream flow, fine-grained iron hydroxide sediment accumulates in the bed load of the stream and adsorbs mercury and methylmercury such that both forms of mercury become highly enriched in the iron oxyhydroxide sediment. During high-flow events, mercury- and methylmercury-enriched iron hydroxide sediment is transported into larger aquatic systems producing a high flux of bioavailable mercury. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.
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Mercury mine drainage and processes that control its environmental impact