Unexpected Consequences: Gold Mining in Peru and Trace Metal Mobilization

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Renee Zurui Wang1, Paulina Pinedo-Gonzalez1, Kathryn E Clark2 and A. Joshua West1, (1)University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, United States, (2)University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
Artisanal miners in the Peruvian Amazon, especially in the Madre de Dios region, are targeting fluvial deposits along riverbanks as part of a modern-day gold rush. These miners often use mercury, causing Hg pollution and ecological damage. Research on the environmental consequences of these mines has focused primarily on the fate of Hg, and to date little work has considered whether mining river sediments affects the release and cycling of other trace metals. This project measures trace metal concentrations in soil and vegetation samples developed on fluvial sediments at one mine site and two non-mine (control) sites across gradients in natural plant succession and riverbank composition. Some metals, including Pb and Mo, showed leachable metal concentrations (determined using EPA Method 2050B and ICP-MS analysis) that were lower in mine site soils than control site soils, but higher in mine site vegetation than control site vegetation. These results held across all gradients in natural plant succession and soil composition. This suggests that metals may be preferentially mobilized from the soil and taken up by surrounding vegetation as a result of mining activities. Soils were also treated with a sequential leach to separate metals that are exchangeable, bound to carbonates, bound to Fe and Mn oxides, bound to organic matter and in the residual phase. Initial data shows that trace metal concentrations are generally lower in all phases from mine soils vs. control soils, across all gradients in natural plant succession and soil composition. Trace metal mobilization due to mining is facilitated by changing pH or redox conditions – e.g., by exposing buried minerals to water and oxygen. Fluvial sediments at these studied sites were already exposed during their erosion and transport, but anoxic conditions following deposition may allow a build-up of metals that are mobilized once sediments are re-worked by mining. It is also possible that Hg affects the mobility of other metals, like through almagation and/or changing acidity, since Hg acts as a Bronsted-Lowry acid when speciated in water. The results of this study indicate that Hg-intensive fluvial gold mining may facilitate trace metal pollution and hopes to inspire further research into the mechanisms and consequences behind illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon.