This reconnaissance study was undertaken at the request of the USDA Forest Service, Region 4, to assess the geochemistry, in particular the mercury and selenium contents, of mining-impacted sediments in the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River in Custer County Idaho. The Yankee Fork has been the site of hard-rock and placer mining, primarily for gold and silver, starting in the 1880s. Major dredge placer mining from the 1930s to 1950s in the Yankee Fork disturbed about a 10-kilometer reach. Mercury was commonly used in early hard-rock mining and placer operations for amalgamation and recovery of gold. During the late 1970s, feasibility studies were done on cyanide-heap leach recovery of gold from low-grade ores of the Sunbeam and related deposits. In the mid-1990s a major open-pit bulk-vat leach operation was started at the Grouse Creek Mine. This operation shut down when gold values proved to be lower than expected.
Mercury in stream sediments in the Yankee Fork ranges from below 0.02 ppm to 7 ppm, with the highest values associated with old mill locations and lode and placer mines. Selenium ranges from below the detection limit for this study of 0.2 ppm to 4 ppm in Yankee Fork sediment samples. The generally elevated selenium content in the sediment samples reflect the generally high selenium contents in the volcanic rocks that underlie the Yankee Fork and the presence of gold and silver selenides in some of the veins that were exploited in the early phases of mining.