The Oat Hill Extension (OHE) Mine is one of several mercury mines located in the James Creek/Pope Creek watershed that produced mercury from the 1870's until 1944 (U.S. Bureau of Mines, 1965). The OHE Mine developed veins and mineralized fault zones hosted in sandstone that extended eastward from the Oat Hill Mine. Waste material from the Oat Hill Mine was reprocessed at the OHE Mine using gravity separation methods to obtain cinnabar concentrates that were processed in a retort. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management requested that the U.S. Geological Survey measure and characterize mercury and other chemical constituents that are potentially relevant to ecological impairment of biota in tailings, sediment, and water at the OHE Mine and in the tributaries of James Creek that drain the mine area (termed Drainage A and B) (Figs. 1 and 2). This report summarizes such data obtained from sampling of tailings and sediments at the OHE on October 17, 2003; water, sediment, and biota from James Creek on May 20, 2004; and biota on October 29, 2004. These data are interpreted to provide a preliminary assessment of the potential ecological impact of the mine on the James Creek watershed.
The mine tailings are unusual in that they have not been roasted and contain relatively high concentrations of mercury (400 to 1200 ppm) compared to unroasted waste rock at other mines. These tailings have contaminated a tributary to James Creek with mercury primarily by erosion, on the basis of higher concentration of mercury (780 ng/L) measured in unfiltered (total mercury, HgT) spring water flowing from the OHE to James Creek compared to 5 to 14 ng/L HgT measured in James Creek itself. Tailing piles (presumably from past Oat Hill mine dumping) near the USBLM property boundary and upstream of the main OHE mine drainage channel (Drainage A; Fig. 2) also likely emit mercury, on the basis of their mercury composition (930 to 1200 ppm). The OHE spring water is likely an appreciable source of sulfate and carbonate to James Creek, because the spring water was enriched in sulfate (130 mg/L) and carbonate (430 mg/L as CaCO3) compared to James Creek water (70 to 100 mg/L SO42- and 110 to 170 mg/L as CaCO3) at the time of sampling. Concentrations of mercury in active channel sediment from James Creek are variable and potentially high, on the basis of chemical analysis (2.5 to 17 _g/g-wet sediment) and easily visible cinnabar grains in panned concentrates.
Average (geometric mean) organic mercury (presumably monomethyl mercury (MMHg); ?2.3.3) concentrations in several invertebrate taxa collected from the James Creek watershed locations were higher than invertebrates taken from a Northern California location lacking a known point source of mercury. The mean proportion of MMHg to total mercury in James Creek predatory insect samples was 40 percent (1 standard deviation = 30 percent); only 40 percent of all insect samples had a MMHg/HgT proportion greater than 0.5. The low proportions of MMHg measured in invertebrates in James Creek and the presence of cinnabar in the creek suggest that some invertebrates may have anomolously high Hg concentrations as a result of the injestion or adhesion of extremely fine-grained cinnabar particles.
Interpretation of HgT in frogs and fish as an indicator of mercury reactivity, biouptake, or trophic transfer is limited, pending MMHg measuremens, by the possibility of these whole-body samples having contained cinnabar particles at the time of analysis. To minimize this limitation, the gastrointestinal tracts and external surfaces of all amphibians, where cinnabar most likely resides, were carefully flushed to remove any visible particles. However, extremely fine-grained, invisible, adhesive cinnabar particles likely exist in the amphibians' habitats.
HgT in foothill yellow-legged frogs collected from the James Creek study area, ranging from 0.1 to 0.6 ug/g Hg, was on average twice that of an extensive
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Mercury at the Oat Hill Extension Mine and James Creek, Napa County, California: Tailings, Sediment, Water, and Biota, 2003-2004