Mercury contamination from historical gold mines represents a potential risk to human health and the environment. This fact sheet provides background information on the use of mercury in historical gold mining and processing operations in California, with emphasis on historical hydraulic mining areas. It also describes results of recent USGS projects that address the potential risks associated with mercury contamination.
Miners used mercury (quicksilver) to recover gold throughout the western United States. Gold deposits were either hardrock (lode, gold-quartz veins) or placer (alluvial, unconsolidated gravels). Underground methods (adits and shafts) were used to mine hardrock gold deposits. Hydraulic, drift, or dredging methods were used to mine the placer gold deposits. Mercury was used to enhance gold recovery in all the various types of mining operations; historical records indicate that more mercury was used and lost at hydraulic mines than at other types of mines. On the basis of USGS studies and other recent work, a better understanding is emerging of mercury distribution, ongoing transport, transformation processes, and the extent of biological uptake in areas affected by historical gold mining. This information has been used extensively by federal, state, and local agencies responsible for resource management and public health in California.