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Gold tailings as a source of waterborne uranium contamination of streams - the Koekemoerspruit (Klerksdorp goldfield, South Africa) as a case study - part I of III: uranium migration along the aqueous pathway

Frank Winde, Peter Wade, Izak Jacobus Van der Walt


Tailings deposits from gold and uranium (U) mining in the Witwatersrand basin often contain elevated levels of radioactive and chemo-toxic heavy metals. Through seepage, dissolved U and other metals migrate from tailings deposits via groundwater into adjacent fluvial systems. The subsequent transport through flowing surface water is one of the most effective pathways of distributing contaminants throughout the biosphere. Mechanisms of diffuse stream contamination, as well as the aqueous transportation of U were investigated.

In this paper, geochemical data of water and sediment samples from the Koekemoerspruit (a typical example of a stream affected by gold and U mining in South Africa) are analysed with regards to possible transport and immobilisation mechanisms of U migrating in solution. Ratios between dissolved and solid phases of U for various water-sediment-systems along the aqueous pathway indicated, unexpectedly, significantly lower mobility of U in flowing surface water than in the groundwater system of the floodplain. Correlation of various geochemical parameters suggests co-precipitation of U along with calcium carbonate and iron/ manganese-compounds as the main reason for the higher immobilisation rate in the flowing water systems. Owing to redoxinitiated precipitation at the interface of reducing groundwater and oxygenated stream water within the bottom sediments, the latter act as a sink and geochemical barrier for U from groundwater sources. The low retention of U in the highly sorptive floodplain sediments on the other hand is explained by the formation of neutral uranyl-sulphate-complexes, which prevent the positively charged U ion from adsorbing onto negative surfaces of clay minerals and organic substances in the floodplain. Evidence for such complexes are sulphate crusts with extremely high U concentrations, which form on topsoil due to capillary fringe effects in dry periods. Due to their high solubility, these crusts are easily dissolved by rain, resulting in concentration peaks of dissolved U in surface runoff.

WaterSA Vol.30 (2) 2004: 219-225
AJOL African Journals Online