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Cycling of As, P, Pb and Sb during weathering of mine tailings: implications for fluvial environments

  • D. Kossoff (a1) (a2), K. A. Hudson-Edwards (a1), W. E. Dubbin (a2), M. Alfredsson (a3) and T. Geraki (a4)...

Abstract

The weathering and oxidation of mine tailings has the potential to contaminate water and soil with toxic elements. To understand the mechanisms, extent and products of the long-term weathering of complex Bolivian tailings from the Cerro Rico de Potosí, and their effects on As, Pb, P and Sb cycling, three-year long laboratory column experiments were carried out to model 20 years of dry- and wet-season conditions in the Pilcomayo basin. Chemical analysis of the leachate and column solids, optical mineralogy, X-ray diffraction, scanning electron microscopy, electron probe microanalysis, microscale X-ray absorption near edge structure spectroscopy, Bureau Commun de Référence sequential extraction and water-soluble chemical extractions, and speciation modelling have shown that the weathering of As-bearing pyrite and arsenopyrite, resulted in a loss of 13–29% of the original mass of As. By contrast, Pb and Sb showed much lower mass losses (0.1–1.1% and 0.6–1.9%, respectively) due to the formation of insoluble Pb- and Sb(V)-rich phases, which were stable at the low pH (~2) conditions that prevailed by the end of the experiment. The experiment also demonstrated a link between the cycling of As, Sb, and the oxidation of Fe(II)-bearing sphalerite, which acted as a nucleation point for an Fe-As-Sb-O phase. Phosphorus was relatively immobile in the tailings columns (up to 0.3% mass loss) but was more mobile in the soil-bearing columns (up to 10% mass loss), due to the formation of soluble P-bearing minerals or mobilization by organic matter. These results demonstrate the influence of mine tailings on the mobility of P from soils and on the potential contamination of ecosystems with As, and strongly suggest that these materials should be isolated from fluvial environments.

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