Mine drainage is formed when pyrite (an iron sulfide) is exposed and reacts with air and water to form sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. Some or all of this iron can precipitate to form the red, orange, or yellow sediments in the bottom of streams containing mine drainage. The acid runoff further dissolves heavy metals such as copper, lead, and mercury into groundwater or surface water. The rate and degree by which acid-mine drainage proceeds can be increased by the action of certain bacteria.
Problems associated with mine drainage include contaminated drinking water, disrupted growth and reproduction of aquatic plants and animals, and the corroding effects of the acid on parts of infrastructures such as bridges.