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Arsenic geochemistry of alluvial sediments and pore waters affected by mine tailings along the Belle Fourche and Cheyenne River floodplains

June 22, 2018

Gold mining operations in the northern Black Hills of South Dakota resulted in the discharge of arsenopyrite-bearing mine tailings into Whitewood Creek from 1876 to 1977. Those tailings were transported further downstream along the Belle Fourche River, the Cheyenne River, and the Missouri River. An estimated 110 million metric tons of tailings remain stored in alluvial deposits of the Belle Fourche and Cheyenne Rivers. Pore-water dialysis samplers were deployed in the channel and backwaters of the Belle Fourche and Cheyenne Rivers to determine temporal and seasonal changes in the geochemistry of groundwater in alluvial sediments. Alluvial sediment adjacent to the dialysis samplers were cored for geochemical analysis. In comparison to US Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standards and reference concentrations of alluvial sediment not containing mine tailings, the Belle Fourche River sites had elevated concentrations of arsenic in pore water (2570 μg/L compared to 10 μg/L) and sediment (1010 ppm compared to < 34 ppm), respectively. Pore water arsenic concentration was affected by dissolution of iron oxyhydroxides under reducing conditions. Sequential extraction of iron and arsenic from sediment cores indicates that substantial quantities of soluble metals were present. Dissolution of arsenic sorbed to alluvial sediment particles appears to be affected by changing groundwater levels that cause shifts in redox conditions. Bioreductive processes did not appear to be a substantial transport pathway but could affect speciation of arsenic, especially at the Cheyenne River sampling sites where microbial activity was determined to be greater than at Belle Fourche sampling sites.