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Geochemical evolution of acidic ground water at a reclaimed surface coal mine in western Pennsylvania

December 31, 1991

Concentrations of dissolved sulfate and acidity in ground water increase downflow in mine spoil and underlying bedrock at a reclaimed surface coal mine in the bituminous field of western Pennsylvania. Elevated dissolved sulfate and negligible oxygen in ground water from bedrock about 100 feet below the water table suggest that pyritic sulfur is oxidized below the water table, in a system closed to oxygen. Geochemical models for the oxidation of pyrite (FeS2) and production of sulfate (SO42-) and acid (H+) are presented to explain the potential role of oxygen (O2) and ferric iron (Fe3+) as oxidants. Oxidation of pyrite by O2 and Fe3+ can occur under oxic conditions above the water table, whereas oxidation by Fe3+ also can occur under anoxic conditions below the water table. The hydrated ferric-sulfate minerals roemerite [Fe2+Fe43+(SO4)4·14H2O], copiapite [Fe2+Fe43+(SO4)6(OH)2·20H20], and coquimbite [Fe2(SO4)3·9H2O] were identified with FeS2 in coal samples, and form on the oxidizing surface of pyrite in an oxic system above the water table. These soluble ferric-sulfate 11 salts11 can dissolve with recharge waters or a rising water table releasing Fe3+, SO42-. and H+, which can be transported along closed-system ground-water flow paths to pyrite reaction sites where O2 may be absent. The Fe3+ transported to these sites can oxidize pyritic sulfur. The computer programs WATEQ4F and NEWBAL were used to compute chemical speciation and mass transfer, respectively, considering mineral dissolution and precipitation reactions plus mixing of waters from different upflow zones. Alternative mass-balance models indicate that (a) extremely large quantities of O2, over 100 times its aqueous solubility, can generate the observed concentrations of dissolved SO42- from FeS2, or (b) under anoxic conditions, Fe3+ from dissolved ferric-sulfate minerals can oxidize FeS2 along closed-system ground-water flow paths. In a system open to O2, such as in the unsaturated zone, the aqueous solubility of O2 is not limiting, and oxidation of pyrite by O2 and Fe3+ accounts for most SO42- and Fe2+ observed in acidic ground water. However, in a system closed to O2, such as in the saturated zone, O2 solubility is limiting; hence, ferric oxidation of pyrite is a reasonable explanation for the observed elevated SO42- with increasing depth below the water table.

Publication Year 1991
Title Geochemical evolution of acidic ground water at a reclaimed surface coal mine in western Pennsylvania
Authors Charles A. Cravotta
Publication Type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype Conference Paper
Index ID 70189555
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pennsylvania Water Science Center