Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Effect of organic matter concentration and characteristics on mercury mobilization and methylmercury production at an abandoned mine site

December 22, 2020

Thousands of abandoned mines throughout the western region of North America contain elevated total-mercury (THg) concentrations. Mercury is mobilized from these sites primarily due to erosion of particulate-bound Hg (THg-P). Organic matter-based soil amendments can promote vegetation growth on mine tailings, reducing erosion and subsequent loading of THg-P into downstream waterbodies. However, the introduction of a labile carbon source may stimulate microbial activity that can produce methylmercury (MeHg)—the more toxic and bioaccumulative form of Hg. Our objectives were to investigate how additions of different organic matter substrates impact Hg mobilization and methylation using a combination of field observations and controlled experiments. Field measurements of water, sediment, and porewater were collected downstream of the site and multi-year monitoring (and load calculations) were conducted at a downstream gaging station. MeHg production was assessed using stable isotope methylation assays and mesocosm experiments that were conducted using different types of organic carbon soil amendments mixed with materials from the mine site. The results showed that >80% of the THg mobilized from the mine was bound to particles and that >90% of the annual Hg loading occurred during the period of elevated discharge during spring snowmelt. Methylation rates varied between different types of soil amendments and were correlated with the components of excitation emission matrices (EEMs) associated with humic acid fractions of organic matter. The mesocosm experiments showed that under anoxic conditions carbon amendments to tailings could significantly increase porewater MeHg concentrations (up to 13 ± 3 ng/L). In addition, the carbon amendments significantly increased THg partitioning into porewater. Overall, these results indicate that soil amendment applications to reduce surface erosion at abandoned mine sites could be effective at reducing particulate Hg mobilization to downstream waterbodies; however, some types of carbon amendments can significantly increase Hg methylation as well as increase the mobilization of dissolved THg from the site.

Publication Year 2021
Title Effect of organic matter concentration and characteristics on mercury mobilization and methylmercury production at an abandoned mine site
DOI 10.1016/j.envpol.2020.116369
Authors Chris S. Eckley, Todd P. Luxton, Brooks Stanfield, Austin K. Baldwin, JoAnn Holloway, John McKernan, Mark Johnson
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Environmental Pollution
Index ID 70217084
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Idaho Water Science Center; Geology, Geophysics, and Geochemistry Science Center