Geochemistry of Mercury and other trace elements in fluvial tailings upstream of Daguerre Point Dam, Yuba River, California, August 2001

Scientific Investigations Report 2004-5165

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This study was designed to characterize the particle-size distribution and the concentrations of total mercury (HgT), methylmercury (MeHg), and other constituents in sediments trapped behind Daguerre Point Dam, a 28-foot-high structure on the lower Yuba River in California. The results of the study will assist other agencies in evaluating potential environmental impacts from mobilization of sediments if Daguerre Point Dam is modified or removed to improve the passage of anadromous fish. Methylmercury is of particular concern owing to its toxicity and propensity to bioaccumulate. A limited amount of recent work on hydraulic and dredge tailings in other watersheds has indicated that mercury and MeHg concentrations may be elevated in the fine-grained fractions of placer mining debris, particularly clay and silt. Mercury associated with tailings from placer gold mines is a source of continued contamination in Sierra Nevada watersheds and downstream water bodies, including the Sacramento?San Joaquin Delta and the San Francisco Bay of northern California. Churn drilling was used to recover sediments and heavy minerals at 5-foot intervals from six locations upstream of Daguerre Point Dam. Maximum depth of penetration ranged from 17.5 to 35 feet below land surface, resulting in 31 discreet drilled intervals. Drilling in permeable, unconsolidated sediments below the streambed of the Yuba River released a significant volume of water along with the sediment, which complicated the sampling and characterization effort. Overflow of a silty fraction sampled at the drill site contained suspended sediment consisting predominantly of silt and clay, with HgT concentration ranging from 33 to 1,100 ng/g (nanogram per gram) dry weight. A sandy fraction, collected after sieving sediment through a 2-millimeter vibratory screen, contained from 14 to 82 percent sand and 1 to 29 percent silt plus clay, and had HgT concentrations ranging from 6.8 to 81 ng/g dry weight. A clay-silt fraction, sampled from material remaining in suspension after the sandy fraction settled for 15-20 minutes, contained mercury concentrations from 23 to 370 ng/g dry weight. Concentrations of MeHg were less than the detection limit (<0.001 ng/g dry weight) in 30 of 31 samples of the sandy fraction. In the suspended clay-silt fraction, MeHg was detected in 16 of 31 samples, in which it ranged in concentration from 0.04 (estimated) to 0.61 ng/g wet weight. Potential rates of mercury methylation and demethylation were evaluated in seven samples using radiotracer methods. Mercury methylation (MeHg production) potentials were generally low, ranging from less than 0.15 to about 1.6 ng/g/d (nanogram per gram of dry sediment per day). Mercury demethylation (MeHg degradation) potentials were moderately high, ranging from 1.0 to 2.2 ng/g/d. The ratio of methylation potential (MP) to demethylation potential (DP) ranged from less than 0.14 to about 1.4 (median = 0.24, mean = 0.44, number of samples = 7), suggesting that the potential for net production of MeHg in deep sediments is generally low. The MeHg production rates and MP/DP ratios were higher in the shallower interval in two of the three holes where two depth intervals were assessed, whereas the MeHg concentrations were higher in the shallower interval for all three holes. A similar spatial distribution was found for concentrations of solid-phase sulfide (measured as total reduced sulfur and likely representing iron-sulfide and iron-disulfide compounds), which were much higher in shallower samples (about 700 to about 2,100 nanomoles per gram, dry sediment) than in deeper samples (32 to 55 nanomoles per gram, dry sediment) in these three holes. If reduced sulfur compounds are oxidized to sulfate as a consequence of sediment disturbance, the activity of sulfate-reducing bacteria might be stimulated, causing a short-term increase in methylation of inorganic Hg(II) (divalent mercury). The extent of increased Hg(II)-methylation w

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USGS Numbered Series
Geochemistry of Mercury and other trace elements in fluvial tailings upstream of Daguerre Point Dam, Yuba River, California, August 2001
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Scientific Investigations Report
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Online only
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77 p.
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