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Fact Sheet 061-00

U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY
Fact Sheet 061-00

Mercury contamination from historic gold mining in California

By Alpers, Charles N., Hunerlach, Michael P.

Mercury contamination from historic gold mines represents a potential risk to human health and the environment. This fact sheet provides background information on the use of mercury in historic gold mining and processing operations in California, and describes a new USGS project that addresses the potential risks associated with mercury from these sources, with emphasis on historic hydraulic mining areas.

Miners used mercury (quicksilver) to recover gold throughout the western United States at both placer (alluvial) and hardrock (lode) mines. The vast majority of mercury lost to the environment in California was from placer-goldmines, which used hydraulic, drift, and dredging methods. At hydraulic mines, placer ores were broken down with monitors (or water cannons, fig. 1) and the resulting slurry was directed throughsluices and drainage tunnels, where goldparticles combined with liquid mercury to form gold–mercury amalgam. Loss ofmercury in this process was 10 to 30 percent per season (Bowie, 1905), resulting in highly contaminated sediments at mine sites (fig. 2). Elevated mercury concentrations in present-day mine waters and sediments indicate thathundreds to thousands of pounds of mercury remain at each of the many sites affected by hydraulic mining. Highmercury levels in fish, amphibians, and invertebrates downstream of the hydrau- lic mines are a consequence of historic mercury use. On the basis of USGS studies and other recent work, a better understanding is emerging of mercury distribution, ongoing transport, transformation processes, and the extent of biological uptake in areas affected by historic gold mining. This information will be useful to agencies responsible for prudent land and resource management and for protecting public health.

This report is available online in Portable Document Format (PDF). If you do not have the Adobe Reader, it is available for free download from Adobe Systems Incorporated.

Download the report (PDF, 3.8 MB)

Document Accessibility: Adobe Systems Incorporated has information about PDFs and the visually impaired. This information provides tools to help make PDF files accessible. These tools convert Adobe PDF documents into HTML or ASCII text, which then can be read by a number of common screen-reading programs that synthesize text as audible speech. In addition, an accessible version of Adobe Reader 8.0 for Windows (English only), which contains support for screen readers, is available. These tools and the accessible reader may be obtained free from Adobe at Adobe Access.

Send questions or comments about this report to the first author, Charles N. Alpers, (916) 278-3134.

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