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Sources of mercury to San Francisco Bay surface sediment as revealed by mercury stable isotopes

December 1, 2011

Mercury (Hg) concentrations and isotopic compositions were examined in shallow-water surface sediment (0–2 cm) from San Francisco (SF) Bay to determine the extent to which historic Hg mining contributes to current Hg contamination in SF Bay, and to assess the use of Hg isotopes to trace sources of contamination in estuaries. Inter-tidal and wetland sediment had total Hg (HgT) concentrations ranging from 161 to 1529 ng/g with no simple gradients of spatial variation. In contrast, inter-tidal and wetland sediment displayed a geographic gradient of δ202Hg values, ranging from -0.30% in the southern-most part of SF Bay (draining the New Almaden Hg District) to -0.99% in the northern-most part of SF Bay near the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. Similar to SF Bay inter-tidal sediment, surface sediment from the Alviso Slough channel draining into South SF Bay had a δ202Hg value of -0.29%, while surface sediment from the Cosumnes River and Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta draining into north SF Bay had lower average δ202Hg values of -0.90% and -0.75%, respectively. This isotopic trend suggests that Hg-contaminated sediment from the New Almaden Hg District mixes with Hg-contaminated sediment from a low δ202Hg source north of SF Bay. Tailings and thermally decomposed ore (calcine) from the New Idria Hg mine in the California Coast Range had average δ202Hg values of -0.37 and +0.03%, respectively, showing that Hg calcination fractionates Hg isotopes resulting in Hg contamination from Hg(II) mine waste products with higher δ202Hg values than metallic Hg(0) produced from Hg mines. Thus, there is evidence for at least two distinct isotopic signals for Hg contamination in SF Bay: Hg associated with calcine waste materials at Hg mines in the Coast Range, such as New Almaden and New Idria; and Hg(0) produced from these mines and used in placer gold mines and/or in other industrial processes in the Sierra Nevada region and SF Bay area.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2011
Title Sources of mercury to San Francisco Bay surface sediment as revealed by mercury stable isotopes
DOI 10.1016/j.gca.2010.11.012
Authors Gretchen E. Gehrke, Joel D. Blum, Mark Marvin-DePasquale
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Index ID 70003669
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Branch of Regional Research-Western Region; San Francisco Bay-Delta; Toxic Substances Hydrology Program