Local, regional, and global implications of elemental mercury in metal (copper, silver, gold, and zinc) ores: Insights from Lake Superior sediments

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Conference Proceeding

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Anthropogenic inventories for copper (229 ± 89 ug/cm2, N = 30), and mercury (470 ± 307 ng/cm2, N = 25) in Lake Superior sediments are much greater than inventories in remote lakes (Cu 50 ± 31 ug/cm2, Hg 64 ± 34 ng/cm2, N = 16) that receive inputs largely from long-distance atmospheric sources. Whereas the absolute concentration of mercury in Lake Superior sediments is not high (80-110 ng/g), enrichment ratios along coastal margins indicate industrial sources. An example of previously unreported mining-related inputs comes from native copper mining on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Around the peninsula, sediment inventories for mercury, silver, and copper are highly correlated and can be traced back to shoreline tailing piles, smelters, and parent ores. Elemental mercury occurs as a natural amalgam or solid solution substitution in native metal (copper, silver, gold) deposits and associated gangue minerals (e.g., sphalerite, ZnS) at μg/g or higher concentrations. Native copper stamp mills discharged more than 364 million metric tons of "stamp sand" tailings, whereas copper smelters refined five million metric tons of copper, liberating together at least 42 metric tons of mercury. Release of trace mercury from Lake Superior mining deserves regional attention as preliminary estimates resemble EPA Region #9 patterns and could help explain the 4-7 fold sediment inventory discrepancies. We show that the Keweenaw situation is not unique geographically, as mineral-bound trace mercury is commonplace in U.S. and Canadian Greenstone Belts and of worldwide occurrence in precious (gold, silver) and massive base metal (copper, zinc) ore deposits.

Publication Title

Journal of Great Lakes Research