Legacy of historic mining and water quality in a heavily mined Scottish river catchment
Mine abandonment and the discharge of contaminated mine water is recognised globally as a major source of surface water and groundwater pollution. Contamination generally arises from the oxidation of sulphide minerals, principally pyrite, by the mining process, and the subsequent chemical reactions can lead to the discharge of mineralised, often acidic, iron, and sulphate rich waters. In many historically mined river catchments, mine water discharge is the main cause of poor water quality. Within the UK, managing the legacy of abandoned mines is one of the principal challenges presented by modern environmental legislation, particularly the EU Water Framework Directive, a challenge that is exacerbated by the diverse and widespread nature of historical mining. The impact and hazard associated with abandoned mining in one of the UK’s most intensively mined regions, the Almond River Catchment, Scotland, was examined via: 1) a detailed GIS mapping and investigation of historical mining processes in the catchment, 2) mine site discharge sampling, 3) detailed site investigations, 4) geochemical modelling of four mine waste sites and 5) analysis of temporal and spatial river water quality in the catchment. The results are then brought together to produce a catchment scale mine water hazard map. Mapping has identified over 300 mine sites in the catchment including coal, oil shale and ironstone mine wastes and flooded coal and oil shale mines. The historical development of oil shale retort methods has been shown to have an impact on potential hazard. Sampling of discharge waters from the different mining activities, in conjunction with detailed mineralogical analysis and geochemical modelling at the four mine waste sites has characterised the main hazards. Ironstone and pyrite bearing coal mine wastes discharge waters with highly elevated Fe and sulphate concentrations, up to 160mgl-1 and 1900mgl-1 respectively, due to extensive pyrite oxidation and acid generating salt dissolution (principally jarosite). Coal mine wastes show variable mineralogy, due to the diverse nature of coal bearing strata, and discharge waters with variable chemistry. Oil Shale mine wastes are generally depleted in pyrite due to historic processing and discharge low sulphate waters with moderately elevated Fe concentrations, up to 5mgl-1. Flooded coal mines discharge sulphate dominant alkaline waters, due to the availability of carbonate minerals in the mine complex, with elevated Fe concentrations, up to 50mgl-1, while flooded oil shale mines discharge waters with moderately elevated Fe concentrations, up to 4mgl-1, due to lower pyrite content in mine strata and reduced availability of oxygen related to mine abandonment age. Once in the surface water environment iron and sulphate display significant concentration-flow dependence: iron increases at high flows due to the re-suspension of river bed iron precipitates (Fe(OH)3); sulphate concentrations decrease with increased flow as a result of dilution. Further examination of iron and sulphate loading at low flows indicates a close correlation of iron and sulphate with mined areas; cumulative low flow load calculations indicate that coal and oil shale mining regions contribute 0.21 and 0.31 g/s of iron, respectively, to the main Almond tributary. Decreases in iron loading on river sections demonstrate the deposition and diffuse storage of iron within the river channel. This river bed iron is re-suspended with increased flow resulting in significant transport of diffuse iron downstream with load values of up to 50 g/s iron. Based on this hazard classification, a catchment scale mine water hazard map has been developed. The map allows the prioritisation of actions for future mine water management.