Ferrihydrite, a hydrous ferric oxide, is ubiquitous in silica-rich mine drainage sites, although some uncertaity remains concerning its nanoscale texture and colloidal properties such as its association with amorphous silica and reactions with contaminant metals. To understand the mechanisms of natural attenuation of contaminants governed by ferrihydrite and amorphous silica aggregations, mine tailings material from the Ningyo-toge uranium deposit, Japan, has been investigated in detail utilizing many traditional solution and mass spectroscopy methods, as well as synchrotron-based methods the latest in FIB- and analytic TEM-based technologies. At this site, the past mining activity results in slightly acidic mine drainage and the contamination of a mill tailings pond with relatively high concentrations of toxic elements, including U, As, and Ra. We have systematically investigated the geochemistry of water, colloids, and sediments from the groundwater draining the former mine site (now remediated), down gradient to the mill tailings pond where the water pH remains ∼6.2. Groundwater with 0.18 mg/L dissolved oxygen (DO) is oxygenated rapidly to levels of 1.65 mg/L DO when exposed to the atmosphere along this flow path. Dissolved Fe2+ is oxidized instantly to form ferrihydrite nanoparticle aggregates > 200 nm in diameter, adsorbing ∼67% of the total As (3.36 µmol/L) in solution. For solutions and particles/aggregates passing through 200-nm filters, ∼17% of the 1.17 µmol/L As is sorbed on these smaller ferrihydrite aggregates. Simultaneously, varying amounts of amorphous silica with particle sizes as small as several nanometers were observed to adsorb onto ferrihydrite aggregates. Arsenic is present predominantly as arsenate, As(V), and preferentially adsorbs to ferrihydrite within these ferrihydrite–amorphous silica aggregates. Arsenate adsorption is not inhibited by silica adsoption on ferrihydrite when the Si/Fe composition is ∼0.25. Uranium is also adsorbed onto aggregates of colloids. After 24 h of static exposure to the ambient atmosphere, the zeta potential of the aggregate that formed in oxygenated water decreases from −16 to −24 mV, near the zeta potential of pure silica, potentially leading to increased colloidal stability. Some large-sized aggregates are deposited at the bottom of the collecting well and slowly adsorb minor amounts of Mn (1.45 wt.%); other aggregates are transported to the mill tailings pond downsteam, where the water is further oxidized (DO = 3.09 mg/L), and deposited onto the sediment together with birnessite, a hydrated Mn-oxide that appears to be biogenic in this case. During sedimentation, associations of amorphous silica within the aggregate play a key role in retaining the ferrihydrite structure that adsorbs toxic elements such as As. Consequently, the mechanism of natural attenuation at the nanoscale constrained by the chemical and physical properties of ferrihydrite–amorphous silica aggregates is of critical importance in the Ningyo-toge mill tailing site. It is shown that it is also important in other mine drainage and mill tailings sites due to the ubiquitous and dominant occurrence of both Si and Fe in these types of settings.
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