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Geochemical evolution of a high arsenic, alkaline pit-lake in the Mother Lode Gold District, California

January 1, 2009

The Harvard orebody at the Jamestown gold mine, located along the Melones fault zone in the southern Mother Lode gold district, California, was mined in an open-pit operation from 1987 to 1994. Dewatering during mining produced a hydrologic cone of depression; recovery toward the premining ground-water configuration produced a monomictic pit lake with alkaline Ca-Mg-HCO3-SO4–type pit water, concentrations of As up to 1,200 μg/L, and total dissolved solids (TDS) up to 2,000 mg/L. In this study, pit-wall rocks were mapped and chemically analyzed to provide a context for evaluating observed variability in the composition of the pit-lake waters in relationship to seasonal weather patterns. An integrated hydrogeochemical model of pit-lake evolution based on observations of pit-lake volume, water composition (samples collected between 1998–2000, 2004), and processes occurring on pit walls was developed in three stages using the computer code PHREEQC. Stage 1 takes account of seasonally variable water fluxes from precipitation, evaporation, springs, and ground water, as well as lake stratification and mixing processes. Stage 2 adds CO2fluxes and wall-rock interactions, and stage 3 assesses the predictive capability of the model.

Two major geologic units in fault contact comprise the pit walls. The hanging wall is composed of interlayered slate, metavolcanic and metavolcaniclastic rocks, and schists; the footwall rocks are chlorite-actinolite and talc-tremolite schists generated by metasomatism of greenschist-facies mafic and ultramafic igneous rocks. Alteration in the ore zone provides evidence for mineralizing fluids that introduced CO2, S, and K2O, and redistributed SiO2. Arsenian pyrite associated with the alteration weathers to produce goethite and jarosite on pit walls and in joints, as well as copiapite and hexahydrite efflorescences that accumulate on wall-rock faces during dry California summers. All of these pyrite weathering products incorporate arsenic at concentrations from <100 up to 1,200 ppm. In the pit lake, pH and TDS reach seasonal highs in the summer epilimnion; pH is lowest in the summer hypolimnion. Arsenic and bicarbonate covary in the hypolimnion, rising as stratification proceeds and declining during winter rains. The computational model suggests that water fluxes alone do not account for this seasonal variability. Loss of CO2 to the atmosphere, interaction with pit walls including washoff of efflorescent salts during the first flush and seasonal rainfall, and arsenic sorption appear to contribute to the observed pit-lake characteristics.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2009
Title Geochemical evolution of a high arsenic, alkaline pit-lake in the Mother Lode Gold District, California
DOI 10.2113/gsecongeo.104.8.1171
Authors Kaye S. Savage, Roger P. Ashley, Dennis K. Bird
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Economic Geology
Series Number
Index ID 70190436
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center