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Geology, geochemistry, and geophysics of the Fry Canyon uranium/copper project site, southeastern Utah: Indications of contaminant migration

September 2, 2010

The Fry Canyon uranium/copper project site in San Juan County, southeastern Utah, was affected by the historical (1957–68) processing of uranium and copper-uranium ores. Relict uranium tailings and related ponds, and a large copper heap-leach pile at the site represent point sources of uranium and copper to local soils, surface water, and groundwater. This study was designed to establish the nature, extent, and pathways of contaminant dispersion. The methods used in this study are applicable at other sites of uranium mining, milling, or processing.

The uranium tailings and associated ponds sit on a bench that is as much as 4.25 meters above the level of the adjacent modern channel of Fry Creek. The copper heap leach pile sits on bedrock just south of this bench. Contaminated groundwater from the ponds and other nearby sites moves downvalley and enters the modern alluvium of adjacent Fry Creek, its surface water, and also a broader, deeper paleochannel that underlies the modern creek channel and adjacent benches and stream terraces. The northern extent of contaminated groundwater is uncertain from geochemical data beyond an area of monitoring wells about 300 meters north of the site. Contaminated surface water extends to the State highway bridge. Some uranium-contaminated groundwater may also enter underlying bedrock of the Permian Cedar Mesa Sandstone along fracture zones.

Four dc-resistivity surveys perpendicular to the valley trend were run across the channel and its adjacent stream terraces north of the heap-leach pile and ponds. Two surveys were done in a small field of monitoring wells and two in areas untested by borings to the north of the well field. Bedrock intercepts, salt distribution, and lithologic information from the wells and surface observations in the well field aided interpretation of the geophysical profiles there and allowed interpretation of the two profiles not tested by wells. The geophysical data for the two profiles to the north of the well field suggest that the paleochannel persists at least 900 m to the north of the heap leach and pond sites. Contamination of groundwater beneath the stream terraces may extend at least that far.

Fry Creek surface water (six samples), seeps and springs (six samples), and wells (eight samples) were collected during a dry period of April 16–19, 2007. The most uranium-rich (18.7 milligrams per liter) well water on the site displays distinctive Ca-Mg-SO4-dominant chemistry indicating the legacy of heap leaching copper-uranium ores with sulfuric acid. This same water has strongly negative δ34S of sulfate (–13.3 per mil) compared to most local waters of –2.4 to –5.4 per mil. Dissolved uranium species in all sampled waters are dominantly U(VI)-carbonate complexes. All waters are undersaturated with respect to U(VI) minerals. The average 234U/238U activity ratio (AR) in four well waters from the site (0.939±0.011) is different from that of seven upstream waters (1.235±0.069). This isotopic contrast permits quantitative estimates of mixing of site-derived uranium with natural uranium in waters collected downstream. At the time of sampling, uranium in downstream surface water was mostly (about 67 percent) site-derived and subject to further concentration by evaporation. Three monitoring wells located approximately 0.4 kilometer downstream contained dominantly (78–87 percent) site-derived uranium. Distinctive particles of chalcopyrite (CuFeS) and variably weathered pyrite (FeS2) are present in tailings at the stream edge on the site and are identified in stream sediments 1.3 kilometers downstream, based on inspection of polished grain mounts of magnetic mineral separates.

Publication Year 2010
Title Geology, geochemistry, and geophysics of the Fry Canyon uranium/copper project site, southeastern Utah: Indications of contaminant migration
DOI 10.3133/sir20105075
Authors James K. Otton, Robert A. Zielinski, Robert Horton
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2010-5075
Index ID sir20105075
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Central Energy Resources Science Center; Crustal Geophysics and Geochemistry Science Center