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Pre-mining trace element and radiation exposure to biota from a breccia pipe uranium mine in the Grand Canyon (Arizona, USA) watershed

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Abstract

The risks to wildlife and humans from uranium (U) mining in the Grand Canyon watershed are largely unknown. In addition to U, other co-occurring ore constituents contribute to risks to biological receptors depending on their toxicological profiles. This study characterizes the pre-mining concentrations of total arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), copper (Cu), lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), nickel (Ni), selenium (Se), thallium (Tl), U, and zinc (Zn); radiation levels; and histopathology in biota (vegetation, invertebrates, amphibians, birds, and mammals) at the Canyon Mine. Gross alpha levels were below the reporting limit (4 pCi/g) in all samples, and gross beta levels were indicative of background in vegetation (<10–17 pCi/g) and rodents (<10–43.5 pCi/g). Concentrations of U, Tl, Pb, Ni, Cu, and As in vegetation downwind from the mine were likely the result of aeolian transport. Chemical concentrations in rodents and terrestrial invertebrates indicate that surface disturbance during mine construction has not resulted in statistically significant spatial differences in fauna concentrations adjacent to the mine. Chemical concentrations in egg contents and nestlings of non-aquatic birds were less than method quantification limits or did not exceed toxicity thresholds. Bioaccumulation of As, Pb, Se, Tl, and U was evident in Western spadefoot (Spea multiplicata) tadpoles from the mine containment pond; concentrations of As (28.9–31.4 μg/g) and Se (5.81–7.20 μg/g) exceeded toxicity values and were significantly greater than in tadpoles from a nearby water source. Continued evaluation of As and Se in biota inhabiting and forging in the mine containment pond is warranted as mining progresses.

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Acknowledgements

We thank staff from USGS (Jesse Arms, Scott Clingan, Cody Flagg, Keith Grabner, Matt Levitt, Vanessa Melton Emily Palmquist, Fred Tillman, Brad Van Gosen, Michael Walther, and Katie Walton-Day), U.S. Forest Service (Kit MacDonald, Liz Schuppert), Bethel College (Wes Goodrich, Jerry Harclerode, Francisca Mendez-Harclerode, Emily Simpson), Northern Arizona University (Dwight Clark, Nick Gengler, Jan. Ingram, Ian MacDonald, Catherine Propper, Tanya Sutton, Hannah Wilson), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Moira McKernan, Brenda Smith, Brian Wooldridge), National Park Service (Jan Busco, Lori Makarick, Cory Mosby), Arizona Game and Fish Department (Susi MacVean, Andi Rogers), and Energy Fuels Resources, Inc. (Danny Flannery) for contributing to the study design, field surveys and collections, or analytical measurements. Matt Struckoff created the map, and Punam Thakur (Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center) and Wendy Kuhne (Savannah River National Laboratory) provided helpful discussions on radiochemistry. Chris Schmitt, Jessica Leet, and anonymous reviewers improved the quality of earlier drafts of the manuscript. Collection of animals was performed under Arizona Game and Fish Department scientific collection license #SP616013 and Migratory Bird permit #MB32581B-0. Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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Hinck, J.E., Cleveland, D., Brumbaugh, W.G. et al. Pre-mining trace element and radiation exposure to biota from a breccia pipe uranium mine in the Grand Canyon (Arizona, USA) watershed. Environ Monit Assess 189, 56 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10661-017-5765-1

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