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Transport and deposition of asbestos-rich sediment in the Sumas River, Whatcom County, Washington

January 1, 2015

Heavy sediment loads in the Sumas River of Whatcom County, Washington, increase seasonal turbidity and cause locally acute sedimentation. Most sediment in the Sumas River is derived from a deep-seated landslide of serpentinite that is located on Sumas Mountain and drained by Swift Creek, a tributary to the Sumas River. This mafic sediment contains high amounts of naturally occurring asbestiform chrysotile. A known human-health hazard, asbestiform chrysotile comprises 0.25–37 percent, by mass, of the total suspended sediment sampled from the Sumas River as part of this study, which included part of water year 2011 and all of water years 2012 and 2013. The suspended-sediment load in the Sumas River at South Pass Road, 0.6 kilometers (km) downstream of the confluence with Swift Creek, was 22,000 tonnes (t) in water year 2012 and 49,000 t in water year 2013. The suspended‑sediment load at Telegraph Road, 18.8 km downstream of the Swift Creek confluence, was 22,000 t in water year 2012 and 27,000 t in water year 2013. Although hydrologic conditions during the study were wetter than normal overall, the 2-year flood peak was only modestly exceeded in water years 2011 and 2013; runoff‑driven geomorphic disturbance to the watershed, which might have involved mass wasting from the landslide, seemed unexceptional. In water year 2012, flood peaks were modest, and the annual streamflow was normal. The fact that suspended-sediment loads in water year 2012 were equivalent at sites 0.6 and 18.8 km downstream of the sediment source indicates that the conservation of suspended‑sediment load can occur under normal hydrologic conditions. The substantial decrease in suspended-sediment load in the downstream direction in water year 2013 was attributed to either sedimentation in the intervening river reach, transfer to bedload as an alternate mode of sediment transport, or both.

The sediment in the Sumas River is distinct from sediment in most other river systems because of the large percentage of asbestiform chrysotile in suspension. The suspended sediment carried by the Sumas River consists of three major components: (1) a relatively dense, largely non-flocculated material that settles rapidly out of suspension; (2) a lighter component containing relatively high proportions of flocculated material, much of it composed of asbestiform chrysotile; and (3) individual chrysotile fibers that are too small to flocculate or settle out, and remain in suspension as wash load (these fibers are on the order of microns in length and tenths of microns in diameter). Whereas the bulk density of the first (heaviest) component of suspended sediment was between 1.5 and 1.6 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm3), the bulk density of the flocculated material was an order of magnitude lower (0.16 g/cm3), even after 24 hours of settling. Soon after immersion in water, the fresh chrysotile fibers derived from the Swift Creek landslide seem to flocculate readily into large bundles, or floccules, that exhibit settling velocities characteristic of coarse silts and fine sands (30 and 250 micrometers). In quiescent water within this river system, the floccules settle out quickly, but still leave between 2.4 and 19.5 million chrysotile fibers per liter in the clear overlying water. Consistent with the results from previous laboratory research, the amounts of asbestiform chrysotile in the water column in Swift Creek, as well as in the Sumas River close to and downstream of its confluence with Swift Creek, were determined to be directly correlated with pH. This observation offers a possible alternative to either turbidity or suspended‑sediment concentration as a surrogate for the concentration of fresh asbestiform chrysotile in suspension.

Continued movement and associated erosion of the landslide through mass wasting and runoff will maintain large sediment loads in Swift Creek and in the Sumas River for the foreseeable future. Given the present channel morphology of the river system, aggradation (that is, sediment accumulation) in Swift Creek and the Sumas River are also likely to continue.

Publication Year 2015
Title Transport and deposition of asbestos-rich sediment in the Sumas River, Whatcom County, Washington
DOI 10.3133/sir20155177
Authors Christopher A. Curran, Scott W. Anderson, Jack E. Barbash, Christopher S. Magirl, Stephen E. Cox, Katherine K. Norton, Andrew S. Gendaszek, Andrew R. Spanjer, James R. Foreman
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2015-5177
Index ID sir20155177
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Washington Water Science Center