US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in The Science of the Total Environment 260 (2000) 21-33


Concentrations of total Hg, Hg(II), and methylmercury were measured in stream-sediment, stream-water, and fish collected downstream from abandoned mercury mines in southwestern Alaska to evaluate environmental effects to surrounding ecosystems. These mines are found in a broad belt covering several tens of thousands of square kilometers, primarily in the Kuskokwim River basin. Mercury ore is dominantly cinnabar (HgS), but elemental mercury (Hg °) is present in ore at one mine and near retorts and in streams at several mine sites. Approximately 1400 t of mercury have been produced from the region, which is approximately 99% of all mercury produced from Alaska. These mines are not presently operating because of low prices and low demand for mercury. Stream-sediment samples collected downstream from the mines contain as much as 5500 μg/g Hg. Such high Hg concentrations are related to the abundance of cinnabar, which is highly resistant to physical and chemical weathering, and is visible in streams below mine sites. Although total Hg concentrations in the stream-sediment samples collected near mines are high, Hg speciation data indicate that concentrations of Hg(II) are generally less than 5%, and methylmercury concentrations are less than 1% of the total Hg. Stream waters below the mines are neutral to slightly alkaline (pH 6.8-8.4), which is a result of the insolubility of cinnabar and the lack of acid-generating minerals such as pyrite in the deposits. Unfiltered stream-water samples collected below the mines generally contain 500-2500 ng/l Hg; whereas, corresponding stream-water samples filtered through a 0.45- μm membrane contain less than 50 ngrl Hg. These stream-water results indicate that most of the Hg transported downstream from the mines is as finely-suspended material rather than dissolved Hg. Mercury speciation data show that concentrations of Hg (II) and methylmercury in stream-water samples are typically less than 22 ng/l, and generally less than 5% of the total Hg. Muscle samples of fish collected downstream from mines contain as much as 620 ng/g Hg (wet wt.), of which 90-100% is methylmercury. Although these Hg concentrations are several times higher than that in fish collected from regional baseline sites, the concentration of Hg in fish is below the 1000 ng/g action level for edible fish established by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Salmon contain less than 100 ng/g Hg, which are among the lowest Hg contents observed for fish in the study, and well below the FDA action level.