Legacy sediment, lead, and zinc storage in channel and floodplain deposits of the Big River, Old Lead Belt Mining District, Missouri, USA


The Old Lead Belt of southeastern Missouri was one of the leading producers of Pb ore for more than a century (1869-1972). Large quantities of contaminated mine waste have been, and continue to be, supplied to local streams. This study assessed the magnitude and spatial distribution of mining-contaminated legacy sediment stored in channel and floodplain deposits of the Big River in the Ozark Highlands of southeastern Missouri. Although metal concentrations decline downstream from the mine sources, the channel and floodplain sediments are contaminated above background levels with Pb and Zn along its entire 171-km length below the mine sources. Mean concentrations in floodplain cores > 2000 mg kg− 1 for Pb and > 1000 mg kg− 1 for Zn extend 40-50 km downstream from the mining area in association with the supply of fine tailings particles that were easily dispersed downstream in the suspended load. Mean concentrations in channel bed and bar sediments ranging from 1400 to 1700 mg kg− 1 for Pb extend 30 km below the mines, while Zn concentrations of 1000-3000 mg kg− 1 extend 20 km downstream. Coarse dolomite fragments in the 2-16 mm channel sediment fraction provide significant storage of Pb and Zn, representing 13-20% of the bulk sediment storage mass in the channel and can contain concentrations of > 4000 mg kg− 1 for Pb and > 1000 mg kg− 1 for Zn. These coarse tailings have been transported a maximum distance of only about 30 km from the source over a period of 120 years for an average of about 250 m/y. About 37% of the Pb and 9% of the Zn that was originally released to the watershed in tailings wastes is still stored in the Big River. A total of ~ 157 million Mg of contaminated sediment is stored along the Big River, with 92% of it located in floodplain deposits that are typically contaminated to depths of 1.5-3.5 m. These contaminated sediments store a total of 188,549 Mg of Pb and 34,299 Mg of Zn, of which 98% of the Pb and 95% of the Zn are stored in floodplain deposits. Most of the metal mass in channel deposits is stored near the mines, with 72% of the Pb and 78% of the Zn occurring in the 25 km of channel proximal to the mine source. Although environmental assessments of streams contaminated by mines often focus on evaluating metal concentrations in the geochemically active fine sediment fractions, about 60% of the Pb stored in channels is associated with coarse dolomite tailings fragments deposited in channels within 25 km of the mines. The magnitude and basinwide distribution of Pb and Zn storage in legacy floodplain sediments ensures that remobilization by bank erosion will be a continuing problem for water quality far into the future.


Geography, Geology, and Planning

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legacy sediment, mining contamination, fluvial storage, ozark highlands

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Recommended Citation

Pavlowsky, Robert T., Scott A. Lecce, Marc R. Owen, and Derek J. Martin. "Legacy sediment, lead, and zinc storage in channel and floodplain deposits of the Big River, Old Lead Belt Mining District, Missouri, USA." Geomorphology 299 (2017): 54-75.

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