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U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011–1122

In cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management

Review of Samples of Water, Sediment, Tailings, and Biota at the Little Bonanza Mercury Mine, San Luis Obispo County, California

By James J. Rytuba, Roger L. Hothem, Daniel N. Goldstein, Brianne E. Brussee, and Jason T. May


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Background and Objectives

The Little Bonanza mercury (Hg) mine, located in San Luis Obispo County, California, is a relatively small mine with a historical total Hg production of about 1,000 flasks. The mine workings and tailings are located in the headwaters of the previously unnamed west fork of Las Tablas Creek (WF Las Tablas Creek), which flows into the Nacimiento Reservoir. Wasterock and tailings eroded from the Little Bonanza Hg Mine have contributed Hg-enriched mine wastes to the headwaters of WF Las Tablas Creek. The mine is located on Federal land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which requested that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) measure and characterize Hg and other geochemical constituents in tailings, sediment, water, and biota at and downstream from the minesite. This report is in response that request, from the lead agency which is mandated to conduct a Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) - Removal Site Investigation (RSI). The RSI applies to removal of Hg-contaminated mine waste from the Little Bonanza minesite as a means of reducing Hg transport to WF Las Tablas Creek.

This report summarizes data obtained from field sampling of mine tailings, wasterock, sediment, water, and biota at the Little Bonanza Mine that was completed on April 6, 2010. Conditions during sampling were dry and no rain had occurred in the watershed for several weeks. Our results permit a preliminary assessment of the mining sources of Hg and associated chemical constituents that could produce elevated levels of monomethyl mercury (MMeHg) in WF Las Tablas Creek and in biota.

History and Geology

The history of the Little Bonanza Hg mine is summarized here from Yates (1943) and other references as cited. The Little Bonanza Mine, located 20 mi west of Paso Robles, was discovered in 1862. Although production was minor until 1900, from 1900 to 1906, the mine produced about 1,000 flasks of Hg. Intermittent production continued into the 1940s but was relatively limited. Underground workings, now caved and inaccessible, include about 3,000 ft of drifts, crosscuts, and raises on three levels extending 260 ft downward.

The workings at the Little Bonanza Mine explore a zone of fault breccia, which trends northwest. The breccia is composed of fragments of sandstone, greenstone, serpentine, and chert in a shale matrix. The serpentine has been hydrothermally altered to silica-carbonate rock, and the Hg deposit is hosted within the zone of alteration. The veins are discontinuous and irregular, but form a steplike pattern along the fault zone. The principal mineralization occurring in the veins is irregular, consisting of disseminated zones of cinnabar. Most of the veins in the mine area contain cinnabar.

Sample Sites and Methods

Samples were collected to assess the concentrations of Hg and biogeochemically relevant constituents in tailings and wasterock piles at the Little Bonanza Hg mine. Tailings are present adjacent to a three-pipe retort used to process the Hg ore. The tailings occur in the upper 15 cm of the soil adjacent to the retort and slag from the retort is present on the surface. An area of disturbed soil and rock uphill from the retort was likely formed during construction of a dam that provided water for mining activities. Wasterock in these piles was sampled. The largest amount of tailings is exposed to the west of the retort in the bank of WF Las Tablas Creek. Water, sediment, and biota were sampled from WF Las Tablas Creek, which flows through the mine area. Sample-site locations are shown in figures 10 and 11 and listed in table 1. Samples were collected when streamflow was low and no precipitation had occurred.

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For additional information:
Contact Information, Western Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center, Menlo Park Office
U.S. Geological Survey
345 Middlefield Road, MS 901
Menlo Park, CA 94025-3591

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Suggested citation:

Rytuba, J.J., Hothem, R.L., Goldstein, D.N., Brussee, B.E., and May, J.T., 2011, Review of samples of water, sediment, tailings, and biota at the Little Bonanza mercury mine, San Luis Obispo County, California: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011-1122, 46 p.



History and Geology

Sample Sites and Methods

Field Sampling Methods

Analytical Methods




References Cited

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