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A watershed-scale approach to tracing metal contamination in the environment

December 27, 1999


Public policy during the 1800's encouraged mining in the western United States. Mining on Federal lands played an important role in the growing economy creating national wealth from our abundant and diverse mineral resource base. The common industrial practice from the early days of mining through about 1970 in the U.S. was for mine operators to dispose of the mine wastes and mill tailings in the nearest stream reach or lake. As a result of this contamination, many stream reaches below old mines, mills, and mining districts and some major rivers and lakes no longer support aquatic life. Riparian habitats within these affected watersheds have also been impacted. Often, the water from these affected stream reaches is generally not suitable for drinking, creating a public health hazard. The recent Department of Interior Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Initiative is an effort on the part of the Federal Government to address the adverse environmental impact of these past mining practices on Federal lands. The AML Initiative has adopted a watershed approach to determine those sites that contribute the majority of the contaminants in the watershed. By remediating the largest sources of contamination within the watershed, the impact of metal contamination in the environment within the watershed as a whole is reduced rather than focusing largely on those sites for which principal responsible parties can be found.

The scope of the problem of metal contamination in the environment from past mining practices in the coterminous U.S. is addressed in a recent report by Ferderer (1996). Using the USGS1:2,000,000-scale hydrologic drainage basin boundaries and the USGS Minerals Availability System (MAS) data base, he plotted the distribution of 48,000 past-producing metal mines on maps showing the boundaries of lands administered by the various Federal Land Management Agencies (FLMA). Census analysis of these data provided an initial screening tool for prioritization of watersheds in the western U.S. A different approach to the scope of the abandoned mine problem (Church et al., 1996a) is shown by the water quality data collected by the States under the Clean Water Act, section 305(b). These data document the stream reaches affected by metals from naturally occurring sources as well as from mining, or mineral resource extraction. Permitted discharges from active industrial and mine sites are not covered in the 305(b) data base.

Local citizens and state and federal agencies are all part of the collaborative decision process used to select the drainage basins chosen for the AML Initiative pilot studies. Data gathered by these three entities were brought to bear on the watershed selection process. The USGS prepared data available from Federal data bases in the form of interpretative GIS products. Maps of the states of Colorado (Plumlee et al., 1995) and a similar study of the state of Montana (USGS, unpublished data) were used to select the Animas watershed in southwestern Colorado and the Boulder watershed southwest of Helena Montana as the pilot study areas for the AML Initiative. Thus, the watersheds selected for study were public decisions made on the basis of available scientific data. The role of the U.S. Geological Survey in the Abandoned Mine Land Initiative is outlined in Buxton et al. (1997).

The watershed approach to metals contamination in the environment has been studied in several drainage basins (Church et al., 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996b; Kimball et al., 1995). The underlying principles used to successfully discriminate between sources and to quantify the impact of these sources on the environment are the subject of this report.

Citation Information

Publication Year 1996
Title A watershed-scale approach to tracing metal contamination in the environment
Authors Stanley E Church
Publication Type Conference Paper
Index ID 70188110
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Abandoned Mine Lands Initiative