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Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5032

In cooperation with the International Boundary and Water Commission; National Park Service; Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, Mexico; Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna Cañón de Santa Elena, Mexico; and Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna Maderas del Carmen, Mexico

Quality of Water and Sediment in Streams Affected by Historical Mining, and Quality of Mine Tailings, in the Rio Grande/Río Bravo Basin, Big Bend Area of the United States and Mexico, August 2002

By Rebecca B. Lambert, Christine M. Kolbe1, and Wayne Belzer2

1 Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Austin, Tex.
2 U.S. Section, International Boundary and Water Commission, El Paso, Tex.

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Abstract

The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the International Boundary and Water Commission—U.S. and Mexican Sections, the National Park Service, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales in Mexico, the Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna Cañón de Santa Elena in Mexico, and the Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna Maderas del Carmen in Mexico, collected samples of stream water, streambed sediment, and mine tailings during August 2002 for a study to determine whether trace elements from abandoned mines in the area in and around Big Bend National Park have affected the water and sediment quality in the Rio Grande/Río Bravo Basin of the United States and Mexico. Samples were collected from eight sites on the main stem of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo, four Rio Grande/Río Bravo tributary sites downstream from abandoned mines or mine-tailing sites, and 11 mine-tailing sites. Mines in the area were operated to produce fluorite, germanium, iron, lead, mercury, silver, and zinc during the late 1800s through at least the late 1970s. Moderate (relatively neutral) pHs in stream-water samples collected at the 12 Rio Grande/Río Bravo main-stem and tributary sites indicate that water is well mixed, diluted, and buffered with respect to the solubility of trace elements. The highest sulfate concentrations were in water samples from tributaries draining the Terlingua mining district. Only the sample from the Rough Run Draw site exceeded the Texas Surface Water Quality Standards general-use protection criterion for sulfate. All chloride and dissolved solids concentrations in water samples were less than the general-use protection criteria. Aluminum, copper, mercury, nickel, selenium, and zinc were detected in all water samples for which each element was analyzed. Cadmium, chromium, and lead were detected in samples less frequently, and silver was not detected in any of the samples. None of the sample concentrations of aluminum, cadmium, chromium, nickel, selenium, and zinc exceeded the Texas Surface Water Quality Standards criteria for aquatic life-use protection or human health. The only trace elements detected in the water samples at concentrations exceeding the Texas Surface Water Quality Standards criterion for human health (fish consumption use) was lead at one site and mercury at 10 of 12 sites. Relatively high mercury concentrations distributed throughout the area might indicate sources of mercury in addition to abandoned mining areas. Streambed-sediment samples were collected from 12 sites and analyzed for 44 major and trace elements. In general, the trace elements detected in streambed-sediment samples were low in concentration, interpreted as consistent with background concentrations. Concentrations at two sites, however, were elevated compared to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality criteria. Concentrations of antimony, arsenic, cadmium, lead, silver, and zinc in the sample from San Carlos Creek downstream from La Esperanza (San Carlos) Mine exceeded the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality screening levels for sediment. The sample from Rough Run Draw, downstream from the Study Butte Mine, also showed elevated concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, and lead, but these concentrations were much lower than those in the San Carlos Creek sample and did not exceed screening levels. Elevated concentrations of multiple trace elements in streambed-sediment samples from San Carlos Creek and Rough Run Draw indicate that San Carlos Creek, and probably Rough Run Draw, have been adversely affected by mining activities. Fourteen mine-tailing samples from 11 mines were analyzed for 25 major and trace elements. All trace elements except selenium and thallium were detected in one or more samples. The highest lead concentrations were detected in tailings samples from the Boquillas, Puerto Rico, La Esperanza (San Carlos), and Tres Marias Mines, as might be expected because the tailings are from lead mines; the concentrations greatly exceeded the screening level for lead. Application of the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure to 14 samples from 11 abandoned mine and mine processing sites indicate that, in general, the leaching potential (concentration) was less than the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure limit. Cadmium and lead concentrations in the mine-tailings sample from San Carlos Mine exceeded the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure screening level for cadmium and lead, and the lead concentration in the mine-tailings sample from Boquillas Mine exceeded the screening level for lead.

Version 1.0

Posted June 2008


Suggested citation:

Lambert, R.B., Kolbe, C.M., and Belzer, Wayne, 2008, Quality of water and sediment in streams affected by historical mining, and quality of mine tailings, in the Rio Grande Basin, Big Bend area of the United States and Mexico: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008–5032, 45 p.



Contents

Abstract

Introduction

Purpose and Scope

Previous Investigations

Acknowledgments

Physical Setting

Geologic Setting

Historical Mining Areas

Chisos/Rainbow Mines

Mariposa (California Mountain) Mine

Study Butte (Big Bend, Texas-Almaden) Mine

Two-Forty-Eight (Flecha) Mine

Waldron (Colquitt-Tigner) Mine

Contributors of Flow, Sediment, Mercury, and Other Trace Elements

Methods

Quality of Stream Water

Salinity and Suspended Solids

Trace Elements

Quality of Streambed Sediment

Quality of Mine Tailings

Trace Elements

Leaching Potential

Summary

References



For additional information contact:
Director, Texas Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
8027 Exchange Drive
Austin, Texas 78754-4733

World Wide Web: http://tx.usgs.gov/
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