We tested the hypothesis that runoff of uranium-bearing particles from mining waste disposal areas was a significant mechanism for redistribution of uranium in the northeastern part of the Upper Puerco River watershed (New Mexico). However, our results were not consistent with this hypothesis. Analysis of >100 sediment and suspended sediment samples collected adjacent to and downstream from uranium source areas indicated that uranium levels in the majority of the samples were not elevated above background. Samples collected within 50 m of a known waste disposal site were subjected to detailed geochemical characterization. Uranium in these samples was found to be highly soluble; treatment with synthetic pore water for 24 h caused dissolution of 10-50% of total uranium in the samples. Equilibrium uranium concentrations in pore water were >4.0 mg/L and were sustained in repeated wetting events, effectively depleting soluble uranium from the solid phase. The dissolution rate of uranium appeared to be controlled by solid-phase diffusion of uranium from within uranium-bearing mineral particles. X-ray adsorption spectroscopy indicated the presence of a soluble uranyl silicate, and possibly a uranyl phosphate. These phases were exhausted in transported sediment suggesting that uranium was readily mobilized from sediments in the Upper Puerco watershed and transported in the dissolved load. These results could have significance for uranium risk assessment as well as mining waste management and cleanup efforts.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Environmental Chemistry