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Background Characterisation Study of Naturally Occurring Acid Rock Drainage in the Sangre De Cristo Mountains, Taos County, New Mexico

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  • A background characterisation study was carried out in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, New Mexico, to: 1. quantify naturally occurring contaminant loads from mineralised areas; 2. define site-specific background concentrations; and 3. to determine key factors controlling spatial and temporal variations in contaminant concentrations. The study included a comprehensive sampling and testing program (paste pH/EC, ABA, leach extraction tests) of soil/bedrock from mineralised areas (including erosional scars), and a ground water and surface water quality monitoring program in selected mineralised watersheds. Results demonstrate that high concentrations of contaminants occur naturally in ground and surface water draining the mineralised area of the Red River basin. The erosional scars were found to represent the major source of acid rock drainage (ARD) (~66 per cent) in this area due to: 1. high rates of weathering and erosion, which continually exposes sulfide-bearing outcrops; and 2. high rates of run-off as a result of high elevation and lack of vegetation. The scar material is generally very acidic (paste pH ranges from 8.5 to 1.5; average = 3.6) with highly elevated concentrations of sulfate and leachable metals. The composition and concentration of leachable metals vary significantly, not only between scars but also within a given scar. While all streams draining the various scar watersheds are highly acidic, each has a characteristic ‘fingerprint’ of sulfate and metal concentrations. Most of the run-off from the scars infiltrates into alluvial debris flow aprons and reaches the Red River via groundwater flow.

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