The presence of the contaminants has been known for many decades. But the interaction of the heavy metals and other compounds in the soil, streams, and rivers were unknown until Virginia Tech professor of geosciences Michael Hochella went all the way to the University of Munster, Germany as a Fulbright Scholar, then as a Humboldt Fellow, to use sophisticated equipment that allowed him to examine lead, arsenic and other materials at the nanometer level (a nanometer being about the size of 10 atoms). He will present his findings, including the discovery of a new mineral, at the 116th national meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver Nov. 7-10.
When the mine was active, ore smelting on the site poured arsenic and sulfur into the air. House cats, because they lick their fur trying to stay clean, died young. People in the area had very pale skin as a result of arsenic poisoning.
"Waste material from mining was dumped in piles that now cover hundreds of acres of land," said Hochella. "This material has been rained on and snowed on for a hundred years and run off into the river. The mining pits have now filled with water, contaminating ground water. If you go into the stream beds and flood plains and dig up muck and dirt, just with a garden trowel, and analyze that dirt, you will find high levels of arsenic, zinc, lead, and copper. Zinc and copper, not ordinarily considered contaminants, are in these concentrations. Nothing grows in these areas."
"So, we knew the metals are there, but we have not known where they reside in the streams and soils," said Hochella. "Is the lead associated with other minerals or with biological material, or is it in a separate phase? No
Contact: Susan Trulove