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Use of an intact core and stable-metal isotopes to examine leaching characteristics of a fluvial tailings deposit

July 12, 2003

The upper Arkansas River south of Leadville, Colorado, USA, contains deposits of fluvial tailings from historical mining operations in the Leadville area. These deposits are possible non-point sources of acid and metal contamination to surface- and ground-water systems. We used stable-metal isotopes to help ascertain metal retention and release mechanisms that influence metal transport from the deposits to shallow ground-water systems. To accomplish this, we excavated an intact core from a small fluvial tailings deposit and performed laboratory column experiments to examine the amount of metals leaching through the core. Deionised water was continuously applied to the top of the core, and effluent was collected from the bottom of the core for a period of about two months.

Three saturation conditions were used, including unsaturated, partially saturated, and fully saturated. Reducing conditions developed upon partial and complete saturation of the core. During the unsaturated leaching phase, core effluents were acidic (pH 2.8 - 3.5) and contained elevated metal concentrations. During a portion of the unsaturated leaching phase, stable-metal isotope spikes and conservative tracers were simultaneously applied to the top of the core. The isotopes provide a means to delineate metal behaviour within the core. During the unsaturated leaching phase, the isotope spikes did not exhibit breakthrough with simultaneously added conservative tracers. However, some of the stable-metal isotope spikes did break through when reducing conditions occurred in the core (during the partial- and completesaturation conditions).

In this paper, we use Cd as an example of the utility of stable-metal isotopes in geochemical studies. In the case of Cd, after the core was partially saturated, the 111Cd spike was released as evidenced by a change in the Cd isotope ratios in the effluent. This release continued during the fully saturated leaching phase, however, the total Cd concentration did not increase. These results suggest that the 111Cd spike was retained inside the core during the unsaturated leaching phase, and only partially released as reducing conditions developed. Results from this core-leaching experiment indicate there is a large reservoir of water-soluble material within the fluvial tailings deposit, which yields elevated metal concentrations and high acidity, and which may degrade adjacent ground- and surface-water quality. Use of stable metal isotopes in this study facilitated the determination of different metal-retention processes, metal-release processes, and metal sources in the fluvial tailings deposit in response to changing geochemical conditions.

Publication Year 2003
Title Use of an intact core and stable-metal isotopes to examine leaching characteristics of a fluvial tailings deposit
Authors James F. Ranville, Kathleen S. Smith, Paul J. Lamothe, Brian P. Jackson, Katherine Walton-Day
Publication Type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype Conference Paper
Index ID 70142991
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse