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Environmental Health - Toxic Substances

Research Projects

Watershed Contamination from Hard Rock Mining

USGS scientists examining and iron bog along Red Mountain Creek, near Silverton, Colo.
An important part of quantifying the loading of metals to streams is to identify and characterize inflows along the stream. Inflows can range from dispersed seeps, to subsurface inflow from groundwater discharging into the stream, to large seeps from iron bogs such as the one shown in this view along Red Mountain Creek, near Silverton, Colorado.

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Information on All USGS Mine Drainage Activities

Watersheds affected by active and/or abandoned hard rock mining (HRM) often have hundreds of mining-related sites with little information on their relative significance as sources of metals contamination and acid mine drainage. Furthermore, natural weathering of the geologic deposits, which are sought out for metal deposits, can be a source of contamination even in the absence of mining activities. The nature of such distributed natural and anthropogenic sources makes a traditional site by site cleanup approach grossly inefficient and likely ineffective.

The overall goal of HRM research is to provide improved information and tools to support decisions related to management, risk assessment, remediation planning, and mitigation of the anthropogenic effects of mine drainage on the surrounding watersheds and ecosystems. The principal research objectives are to a) characterize hydrologic and biogeochemical processes that affect dispersal of metals and associated contaminants and b) describe contaminant pathways to organisms. Current research expands on previous Toxic Substances Hydrology (Toxics) Program hard rock research by including investigations across broader temporal and spatial scales and by integrating research on bioaccumulation and the effects of metal contamination on organisms with investigations on biogeochemical and hydrologic processes that affect transport and fate of metals in streams and near-stream ground-water systems. Two guiding principles of the research are (1) interdisciplinary coordination to integrate all factors and processes that control the affects of HRM on watersheds and ecosystems from source to receptors, and (2) synthesis of interdisciplinary knowledge across scales to make relevant to the practical management decision making, including liaison with land management agencies for technology transfer and effective identification of science needs.

Project activities are undertaken in watersheds with various types of climate, hydrogeology and mining techniques:

Hardrock Mining in Rocky Mountain Terrain -- Upper Arkansas River, Colorado

Hardrock Mining in Southwest Alluvial Basins -- Pinal Creek, Arizona

Ground-Water Contamination by Heavy Metals -- Tar Creek, Oklahoma

USGS Abandoned Mine Lands Initiative -- Upper Animas River Watershed, Colorado, and Boulder River Watershed, Montana

Arsenic Contamination from Hard Rock Mining -- Whitewood Creek-Belle Fourche River, South Dakota [Completed]

The Summitville Mine and its Downstream Effects [Completed]

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Other Program Hard Rock Mining Research

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