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The source of groundwater and solutes to Many Devils Wash at a former uranium mill site in Shiprock, New Mexico

April 21, 2016

The Shiprock Disposal Site is the location of the former Navajo Mill (Mill), a uranium ore-processing facility, located on a terrace overlooking the San Juan River in the town of Shiprock, New Mexico. Following the closure of the Mill, all tailings and associated materials were encapsulated in a disposal cell built on top of the former Mill and tailings piles. The milling operations, conducted at the site from 1954 to 1968, created radioactive tailings and process-related wastes that are now found in the groundwater. Elevated concentrations of constituents of concern—ammonium, manganese, nitrate, selenium, strontium, sulfate, and uranium—have also been measured in groundwater seeps in the nearby Many Devils Wash arroyo, leading to the inference that these constituents originated from the Mill. These constituents have also been reported in groundwater that is associated with Mancos Shale, the bedrock that underlies the site. The objective of this report is to increase understanding of the source of water and solutes to the groundwater beneath Many Devils Wash and to establish the background concentrations for groundwater that is in contact with the Mancos Shale at the site. This report presents evidence on three working hypotheses: (1) the water and solutes in Many Devils Wash originated from the operations at the former Mill, (2) groundwater in deep aquifers is upwelling under artesian pressure to recharge the shallow groundwater beneath Many Devils Wash, and (3) the groundwater beneath Many Devils Wash originates as precipitation that infiltrates into the shallow aquifer system and discharges to Many Devils Wash in a series of springs on the east side of the wash. The solute concentrations in the shallow groundwater of Many Devils Wash would result from the interaction of the water and the Mancos Shale if the source of water was upwelling from deep aquifers or precipitation.

In order to compare the groundwater from various wells to groundwater that has been affected by Mill activities, a classification system was developed to determine which wells were most likely to have been affected. Affects to groundwater by the Mill were determined by using the reported uranium alpha activity ratios measured in groundwater samples, along with the concentration of the uranium and the location of the wells relative to the Mill. Activity ratios of 1.2 or less were determined to be the most reliable indicator of Mill-affected groundwater. Wells with samples that had a reported activity ratio of 1.2 or less were classified as Mill affected. To compare groundwater with background water-quality, data from groundwater seeps and springs in the Upper Eagle Nest Arroyo and Salt Creek Wash, located north of the San Juan River, are also presented and analyzed.

Based on groundwater elevations and tritium concentrations measured in wells located between the disposal cell and Many Devils Wash, Mill water is not likely to reach Many Devils Wash. The tritium concentrations also indicate that groundwater from the Mill has not substantially affected Many Devils Wash in the past. Upwelling from deep aquifers was also determined to be an unlikely source, primarily by comparing the composition of the stable isotopes of water in the shallow groundwater with those reported in groundwater samples from the deeper aquifers. The stable-isotope compositions of the shallow groundwater around the site are enriched relative to the San Juan River and local meteoric lines, which suggests that most of the shallow groundwater has been influenced by evaporation and therefore was recharged at the surface. Several observations indicate that focused recharge is the likely source of groundwater in the area of Many Devils Wash. The visible erosional features in Many Devils Wash provide evidence of piping and groundwater sapping, and the distribution and type of vegetation in Many Devils Wash suggest that the focused recharge of precipitation is occurring. The estimated recharge from precipitation was calculated to be 0.0008 inches per year (in/yr) by using the mass-balance approach from reported seep discharge and 0.0011 in/yr using the chloride mass-balance approach.

A conceptual model of groundwater quality beneath Many Devils Wash is presented to explain the source of solutes in the groundwater beneath Many Devils Wash. The major-ion concentrations and geochemical evolution in the groundwater beneath Many Devils Wash and across the study area support the conceptual model that the underlying Mancos Shale is the source of solutes. Differences in the major-ion composition between groundwater samples collected around the site, result from the degree of weathering to the Mancos Shale. The cation distribution appears to be an indicator of effects from the Mill, with samples from the Mill-affected wells largely having a calcium/magnesium-sulfate composition that resembles the reported compositions of more weathered shale; however, that composition could change if the Mill-processed water flowed into areas where the Mancos Shale was less weathered. On the basis of the widespread presence of uranium in the Mancos Shale and the distribution of aqueous uranium in the analog sites and other sites in the region, it appears likely that uranium in the groundwater of Many Devils Wash is naturally sourced from the Mancos Shale.

Publication Year 2016
Title The source of groundwater and solutes to Many Devils Wash at a former uranium mill site in Shiprock, New Mexico
DOI 10.3133/sir20165031
Authors Andrew J. Robertson, Anthony J. Ranalli, Stephen A. Austin, Bryan R. Lawlis
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2016-5031
Index ID sir20165031
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization New Mexico Water Science Center