Western Mineral Resources

U.S. Geological Survey
Open-File Report 2007-1132
Version 1.0

Mercury at the Oat Hill Extension Mine and James Creek, Napa County, California: Tailings, Sediment, Water, and Biota, 2003–2004

By Aaron J. Slowey, James J. Rytuba, Roger L. Hothem, and Jason T. May


two photos.  One of worker panning, the other a close-up of red cinnabar in the pan
(Right) James Creek at sample site 04JC1. Sediment consists of medium to coarse sand and fine silt to clay sizes, the latter containing iron (hydr)oxides derived from Corona and Twin Peaks mine drainage. (Left) Cinnabar present in panned concentrate from this location (from figure 14).

Executive Summary

The Oat Hill Extension (OHE) Mine is one of several mercury mines located in the James Creek/Pope Creek watershed that produced mercury from the 1870's until 1944 (U.S. Bureau of Mines, 1965). The OHE Mine developed veins and mineralized fault zones hosted in sandstone that extended eastward from the Oat Hill Mine. Waste material from the Oat Hill Mine was reprocessed at the OHE Mine using gravity separation methods to obtain cinnabar concentrates that were processed in a retort. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management requested that the U.S. Geological Survey measure and characterize mercury and other chemical constituents that are potentially relevant to ecological impairment of biota in tailings, sediment, and water at the OHE Mine and in the tributaries of James Creek that drain the mine area (termed Drainage A and B) (Figs. 1 and 2). This report summarizes such data obtained from sampling of tailings and sediments at the OHE on October 17, 2003; water, sediment, and biota from James Creek on May 20, 2004; and biota on October 29, 2004. These data are interpreted to provide a preliminary assessment of the potential ecological impact of the mine on the James Creek watershed.

The mine tailings are unusual in that they have not been roasted and contain relatively high concentrations of mercury (400 to 1200 ppm) compared to unroasted waste rock at other mines. These tailings have contaminated a tributary to James Creek with mercury primarily by erosion, on the basis of higher concentration of mercury (780 ng/L) measured in unfiltered (total mercury, HgT) spring water flowing from the OHE to James Creek compared to 5 to 14 ng/L HgT measured in James Creek itself. Tailing piles (presumably from past Oat Hill mine dumping) near the USBLM property boundary and upstream of the main OHE mine drainage channel (Drainage A; Fig. 2) also likely emit mercury, on the basis of their mercury composition (930 to 1200 ppm). The OHE spring water is likely an appreciable source of sulfate and carbonate to James Creek, because the spring water was enriched in sulfate (130 mg/L) and carbonate (430 mg/L as CaCO3) compared to James Creek water (70 to 100 mg/L SO42- and 110 to 170 mg/L as CaCO3) at the time of sampling. Concentrations of mercury in active channel sediment from James Creek are variable and potentially high, on the basis of chemical analysis (2.5 to 17 _g/g-wet sediment) and easily visible cinnabar grains in panned concentrates.

Average (geometric mean) organic mercury (presumably monomethyl mercury (MMHg); §2.3.3) concentrations in several invertebrate taxa collected from the James Creek watershed locations were higher than invertebrates taken from a Northern California location lacking a known point source of mercury. The mean proportion of MMHg to total mercury in James Creek predatory insect samples was 40 percent (1 standard deviation = 30 percent); only 40 percent of all insect samples had a MMHg/HgT proportion greater than 0.5. The low proportions of MMHg measured in invertebrates in James Creek and the presence of cinnabar in the creek suggest that some invertebrates may have anomolously high Hg concentrations as a result of the injestion or adhesion of extremely fine-grained cinnabar particles.

Interpretation of HgT in frogs and fish as an indicator of mercury reactivity, biouptake, or trophic transfer is limited, pending MMHg measuremens, by the possibility of these whole-body samples having contained cinnabar particles at the time of analysis. To minimize this limitation, the gastrointestinal tracts and external surfaces of all amphibians, where cinnabar most likely resides, were carefully flushed to remove any visible particles. However, extremely fine-grained, invisible, adhesive cinnabar particles likely exist in the amphibians' habitats.

HgT in foothill yellow-legged frogs collected from the James Creek study area, ranging from 0.1 to 0.6 μg/g Hg, was on average twice that of an extensive database compiled from HgT in frogs studied throughout Northern California. Average concentrations of HgT in frogs from James Creek were similar upstream (0.18 μg/g) and downstream (0.15 μg/g) of the confluence with Tributary 1 and at the lower Corona Mine adit drainage (0.14 μg/g). Frogs may be susceptible to trophic transfer of MMHg from invertebrates, but further study is required to rule out cinnabar ‘contamination.’

HgT concentrations in rainbow trout collected from James Creek upstream and downstream of Tributary 1 averaged 0.10 μg/g and 0.13 μg/g, respectively. Compared to invertebrates, trout HgT was less variable, suggesting that trout were less contaminated with cinnabar. California roach had significantly higher HgT on average than trout (0.16 vs. 0.12 μg/g), and can be considered moderately contaminated compared to the same species from other sites in Northern California, which average 0.12 μg/g Hg.

While limited measurements of mercury in water, sediment, and fish exceed, in some samples, predefined ecologically protective criteria for mine-impacted California systems, they do not clearly demonstrate that the biota residing in James Creek in the vicinity of the OHE are ecologically impaired. The potential for ecological impairment is clearly evident from invertebrate methyl mercury results and may manifest in other biological ecosystem residents that have yet to be studied (e.g., piscivorous birds). Methyl mercury concentrations in flowing water and sediment from James Creek and the tributary that drains the OHE are relatively low, ranging from 0.04 to 0.08 ng/L, although these data should be cautiously interpreted (see §3.2).

While the results of this investigation suggest that the OHE contributes inorganic mercury to James Creek, they do not indicate the extent to which the OHE site is ecologically impairing biota relative to other sources of mercury. Improved sampling and analytical methods are recommended for future study.

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For questions about the content of this report, contact Aaron Slowey

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