Effects of Uranium Mining, Puerco River, New Mexico

by Thomas J. Lopes, U.S. Geological Survey, Tucson, United States,

Document Type: Proceeding Paper

Part of: Structures for Enhanced Safety and Physical Security


Effluent from uranium-mine dewatering and acidic water released by a tailings-pond dike failure increased radionuclide activities in streamflow in the Puerco River in New Mexico and Arizona. Median dissolved gross-alpha activity in the streamflow was 1,130 picocuries per liter from 1975 to 1986 when mine discharges ceased and 6.2 picocuries per liter from 1986 to 1989. From 1975 to July 1979, major ions in streamflow at the Puerco River at Gallup streamflow-gaging station were sodium, bicarbonate, and sulfate. On July 16, 1979, the day of the tailing spill, major ions in streamflow were magnesium, calcium, and sulfate. From 1979 to 1984, major ions in streamflow had a greater proportion of calcium and sulfate than prior to the spill, indicating flushing of residual tailings solution. Geochemical modeling of mine effluent indicates that uranium was unlikely to precipitate from effluent between the mines and Gallup or when mixed with wastewater downstream from Gallup. Geochemical modeling of acidic-tailings solution indicates that uranium was in solution as far downstream as Gallup. When the acidic-tailings solution mixed with 10- to 40-percent wastewater, uranium may have precipitated from solution as carnotite [K2(UO2)2 (VO4)2] and tyuyamunite [Ca(UO2)2(VO4)2].

Subject Headings: Uranium | Streamflow | Rivers and streams | Water pollution | Effluents | Sulfates | Mine wastes | Calcium | United States | New Mexico | Arizona

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