US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published by USGS, Fact Sheet FS-061-00, (2000)


Mercury contamination from historic gold mines represents a potential risk to human health and the environment. This fact sheet provides background information on the use of mercury in historic gold mining and processing operations in California, and describes a new USGS project that addresses the potential risks associated with mercury from these sources, with emphasis on historic hydraulic mining areas. Miners used mercury (quicksilver) to recover gold throughout the western United States at both placer (alluvial) and hardrock (lode) mines. The vast majority of mercury lost to the environment in California was from placer-gold mines, which used hydraulic, drift, and dredging methods. At hydraulic mines, placer ores were broken down with monitors (or water cannons, fig. 1) and the resulting slurry was directed through sluices and drainage tunnels, where gold particles combined with liquid mercury to form gold–mercury amalgam. Loss of mercury in this process was 10 to 30 percent per season (Bowie, 1905), resulting in highly contaminated sediments at mine sites (fig. 2). Elevated mercury concentrations in present-day mine waters and sediments indicate that hundreds to thousands of pounds of mercury remain at each of the many sites affected by hydraulic mining. High mercury levels in fish, amphibians, and invertebrates downstream of the hydraulic mines are a consequence of historic mercury use. On the basis of USGS studies and other recent work, a better understanding is emerging of mercury distribution, ongoing transport, transformation processes, and the extent of biological uptake in areas affected by historic gold mining. This information will be useful to agencies responsible for prudent land and resource management and for protecting public health.