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The impact of tailings dam spills and clean-up operations on sediment and water quality in river systems: The Ríos Agrio-Guadiamar, Aznalcóllar, Spain

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Andrew Howard


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The Aznalcóllar tailings dam at Boliden Apirsa's Aznalcóllar/Los Frailes Ag–Cu–Pb–Zn mine 45 km west of Seville, Spain, was breached on 25 April 1998, flooding approximately 4600 hectares of land along the Ríos Agrio and Guadiamar with approximately 5.5 million m3 of acidic water and 1.3×106 m3 of heavy metal-bearing tailings. Most of the deposited tailings and approximately 4.7×106 m3 of contaminated soils were removed to the Aznalcóllar open pit during clean-up work undertaken immediately after the spill until January 1999. Detailed geomorphological and geochemical surveys of the post-clean-up channel, floodplain and valley floor, and sediment and water sampling, were carried out in January and May 1999 at 6 reaches representative of the types of river channel and floodplain environments in the Río Guadiamar catchment affected by the spill. The collected data show that the clean-up operations removed enough spill-deposited sediment to achieve pre-spill metal (Ag, As, Cd, Cu, Pb, Sb, Tl, Zn) concentrations in surface sediment. These concentrations, however, are still elevated above pre-mining concentrations, and emphasise that mining continues to contaminate the Agrio-Guadiamar river system. Dilution by relatively uncontaminated sediment appears to reduce metal concentrations downstream but increases in metal and As concentrations occur downstream, presumably as a result of factors such as sewage and agriculture. River water samples collected in May 1999 have significantly greater dissolved concentrations of metals and As than those from January 1999, probably due to greater sulphide oxidation from residual tailings with concomitant release of metals in the warmer early summer months. These concentrations are reduced downstream, probably by a combination of dilution and removal of metals by mineral precipitation. Single chemical extractions (de-ionised water, CaCl2 0.01 mol l−1, CH3COONH4 1 M, CH3COONa 1 M and ammonium oxalate 0.2 M) on alluvial samples from reaches 1 and 6, the tailings, pre-spill alluvium and marl have shown that the order of sediment-borne contaminant mobility is generally Zn>Cd>Cu>Pb>As. Pb and As are relatively immobile except possibly under reducing conditions. Much of the highly contaminated sediment remaining in the floodplain and channel still contains a large proportion of tailings-related sulphide minerals which are potentially reactive and may continue to release contaminants to the Agrio–Guadiamar river system. Our work emphasises the need for pre-mining geomorphological and geochemical data, and an assessment of potential contributions of contaminants to river systems from other, non-mining sources.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Hudson-Edwards KA, Macklin MG, Jamieson HE, Brewer PA, Coulthard TJ, Howard AJ, Turner J

Publication type: Article

Journal: Applied Geochemistry

Year: 2003

Volume: 18

Issue: 2

Pages: 221-239

ISSN (print): 0883-2927

ISSN (electronic): 1872-9134

Publisher: Pergamon


DOI: 10.1016/S0883-2927(02)00122-1


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