Applications of imaging spectroscopy data: A case study at Summitville, Colorado

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From 1985 through 1992, the Summitville open-pit mine produced gold from lowgrade ore using cyanide heap-leach techniques, a method to extract gold whereby the ore pile is sprayed with water containing cyanide, which dissolves the minute gold grains. Environmental problems due to mining activity at Summitville include significant increases in acidic and metal-rich drainage from the site, leakage of cyanide-bearing solutions from the heap-leach pad into an underdrain system, and several surface leaks of cyanide-bearing solutions into the Wightman Fork of the Alamosa River. In general, drainage from the Summitville mine moves downslope into the Wightman Fork, a small tributary of the Alamosa River, which in turn flows east into the Terrace Reservoir before entering the agricultural lands of the San Luis Valley. The increase in the trace-metal burden of the Alamosa River watershed due to the mining activities at Summitville is of concern to farmers and fisherman, as well as Federal and State of Colorado agencies having responsibility for land stewardship. 

The environment of the Summitville area is a result of 1) its geologic evolution, that culminated in the formation of precious-metal mineral deposits; and 2) previous metal mining activity. Mining accentuates, accelerates, and pertubates natural geochemical processes. The development of underground workings, open pits, mill tailings, and spoil heaps and the extractive processing of ore enhances the likelihood of releasing chemicals and elements to the surrounding areas and at increased rates relative to unmined areas. Both mined and unmined mineralized areas can produce acid drainage from the formation and movement of highly acidic water rich in heavy metals. This acidic water forms principally through the chemical reaction of oxygenated surface water and shallow subsurface water with rocks that contain sulfide minerals, producing sulphuric acid. Heavy metals can be leached by the acid solution that comes in contact with mineralized rocks, a process that may be enhanced by bacterial action. The resulting fluids may be highly toxic and, when mixed with groundwater, surface water, and soil, may have harmful effects on humans, animals, and plants. Thus, understanding the geologic and hydrologic history of this area is a critical piece of the environmental puzzle in the Summitville area.

The Summitville mine operators had ceased active mining and begun environmental remediation, including treatment of the heap-leach pile and installation of a water-treatment facility, when it declared bankruptcy in December 1992 and abandoned the mine site. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) immediately took over the Summitville site under EPA Superfund Emergency Response authority.

Summitville has focused public attention on the environmental effects of modern mineral-resource development. Soon after the mine was abandoned, Federal, State, and local agencies, along with Alamosa River water users and private companies, began extensive studies at the mine site and surrounding areas. These studies included analysis of water, soil, livestock and vegetation. The role of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) was to provide geologic, hydrologic and agricultural information about the mine and surrounding area and to describe and evaluate the environmental condition of the Summitville mine and the downstream effects of the mine on the San Luis Valley (King 1995).

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title Applications of imaging spectroscopy data: A case study at Summitville, Colorado
DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-56978-4_6
Year Published 2000
Language English
Publisher Springer
Contributing office(s) Geology, Geophysics, and Geochemistry Science Center
Description 22 p.
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Title Remote sensing for site characterization
First page 164
Last page 185
Country United States
State Colorado
City Summitville
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