Arsenic and mercury contamination related to historical goldmining in the Sierra Nevada, California

Geochemistry: Exploration, Environment, Analysis
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Abstract

Arsenic (As) is a naturally occurring constituent in low-sulphide gold-quartz vein deposits, the dominant deposit type for lode mines in the Sierra Nevada Foothills (SNFH) gold (Au) province of California. Concentrations of naturally occurring mercury (Hg) in the SNFH Au province are low, but extensive use and loss of elemental Hg during amalgamation processing of ore from lode and placer Au deposits led to widespread contamination of Hg in the Sierra Nevada foothills and downstream areas, such as the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay. This review paper provides an overview of As and Hg contamination related to historical Au mining in the Sierra Nevada of California. It summarizes the geology, mineralogy, and geochemistry of the Au deposits, and provides information on specific areas where detailed studies have been done in association with past, ongoing, and planned remediation activities related to the environmental As and Hg contamination.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring constituent in low-sulphide Au-quartz vein deposits, the dominant deposit type for lode mines in the Sierra Nevada Foothills (SNFH) Au province (Ashley 2002). Because of elevated concentrations of As in accessory iron-sulphide minerals including arsenopyrite (FeAsS) and arsenian pyrite (Fe(S,As)2), As is commonly a contaminant of concern in lode Au mine waste, including waste rock and mill tailings. The principal pathways of human As exposure from mine waste include ingestion of soil or drinking water, and inhalation of dust in contaminated areas (Mitchell 2014).

Concentrations of naturally occurring Hg in the SNFH Au province are low, but extensive use and loss of elemental Hg during amalgamation processing of ore from lode and placer Au deposits (Churchill 2000) led to widespread contamination of Hg in the Sierra Nevada foothills and downstream areas, such as the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay (Alpers et al. 2005a). Conversion of Hg to monomethylmercury (MeHg) by sulphate-reducing and iron-reducing microbes facilitates its bioaccumulation (Wiener et al. 2003). The human Hg exposure pathway of main concern is ingestion of MeHg from sport (non-commercial) fish, especially higher trophic levels such as bass species (Davis et al. 2008). Wildlife exposure to MeHg is also a concern because of chronic and reproductive effects, for example in fish-eating and invertebrate-foraging birds (e.g. Wiener et al. 2003; Eagles-Smith et al. 2009; Ackerman et al. 2016).

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Arsenic and mercury contamination related to historical goldmining in the Sierra Nevada, California
Series title Geochemistry: Exploration, Environment, Analysis
DOI 10.1144/geochem2016-018
Volume 17
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher The Geological Society of London
Contributing office(s) California Water Science Center
Description 9 p.
First page 92
Last page 100
Country United States
State California
Other Geospatial Sierra Nevada
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