Weathering of metal-sulfide minerals produces suites of variably soluble efflorescent sulfate salts at a number of localities in the eastern United States. The salts, which are present on mine wastes, tailings piles, and outcrops, include minerals that incorporate heavy metals in solid solution, primarily the highly soluble members of the melanterite, rozenite, epsomite, halotrichite, and copiapite groups. The minerals were identified by a combination of powder X-ray diffraction (XRD), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and electron-microprobe. Base-metal salts are rare at these localities, and Cu, Zn, and Co are commonly sequestered as solid solutions within Fe- and Fe-Al sulfate minerals. Salt dissolution affects the surface-water chemistry at abandoned mines that exploited the massive sulfide deposits in the Vermont copper belt, the Mineral district of central Virginia, the Copper Basin (Ducktown) mining district of Tennessee, and where sulfide-bearing metamorphic rocks undisturbed by mining are exposed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Dissolution experiments on composite salt samples from three minesites and two outcrops of metamorphic rock showed that, in all cases, the pH of the leachates rapidly declined from 6.9 to <3.7, and specific conductance increased gradually over 24 h. Leachates analyzed after 24-h dissolution experiments indicated that all of the salts provided ready sources of dissolved Al (>30 mg L-1), Fe (>47 mg L-1), sulfate (>1000 mg L-1), and base metals (>1000 mg L-1 for minesites, and 2 mg L-1 for other sites). Geochemical modeling of surface waters, mine-waste leachates, and salt leachates using PHREEQC software predicted saturation in the observed ochre minerals, but significant concentration by evaporation would be needed to reach saturation in most of the sulfate salts. Periodic surface-water monitoring at Vermont minesites indicated peak annual metal loads during spring runoff. At the Virginia site, where no winter-long snowpack develops, metal loads were highest during summer months when salts were dissolved periodically by rainstorms following sustained evaporation during dry spells. Despite the relatively humid climate of the eastern United States, where precipitation typically exceeds evaporation, salts form intermittently in open areas, persist in protected areas when temperature and relative humidity are appropriate, and contribute to metal loadings and acidity in surface waters upon dissolution, thereby causing short-term perturbations in water quality.
Additional publication details
Secondary sulfate minerals associated with acid drainage in the eastern US: Recycling of metals and acidity in surficial environments