Soil pollution by oxidation of tailings from toxic spill of a pyrite mine

M. Simón, , F. Martín, I. Ortiz, I. García, J. Fernández, E. Fernández, C. Dorronsoro and J. Aguilar
Dpto. de Edafología y Química Agrícola, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Granada, 18071 Granada, Spain


On the 25th April 1998, toxic water and tailings from a pyrite mine of Aznalcóllar (southern Spain) spilled into the Agrio and Guadiamar River Basin affecting some 40 km2. In five sectors throughout the basin, we monitored the physical and chemical properties of the tailings as well as the degree of pollution in the soils on four different sampling dates: 5 May, 20 May, 4 June and 22 July 1998. The characteristics of the tailings deposited on the soils are shown to be related to distance from the spill. The oxidation rate of the tailings and the solubilization of the pollutant elements were more pronounced in the middle and lower sectors of the basin, where the particle size was finer, the sulfur content higher and the bulk density less. The increases in water-soluble sulfates, Zn, Cd and Cu were very rapid (the highest values being reached 25 days after the spill) and intense (reaching 45% of the total Cu, 65% of the total Zn and Cd). Meanwhile, the increases in water-soluble As, Bi, Sb, Pb and Tl were far lower (ranging between 0.002% of the total Tl and 2.5% of the total As) and less rapid in the case of As, Bi and Pb (the highest values for these elements being reached 40 days after the spill). These soluble elements infiltrated the soils with the rainwater, swiftly augmenting the soil pollution. Twenty-five days after the spill, when the rainfall ranged between 45 and 63 mm, the first 10-cm of the soils in the middle and lower sectors of the basin exceeded the maximum concentration permitted for agricultural soils in Zn, Cu and Tl. At 40 days after the spill, when the rainfall ranged between 60 and 89 mm, all the soils reached or exceeded the maximum permitted concentrations for As and Tl. Nevertheless, the pollutants tended to concentrate in the first 10 cm of the soils without seriously contaminating either the subsoil or the groundwaters. Consequently, a rapid removal of the tailings and the ploughing of the first 25–30 cm of the soils would be urgent measures to diminish pollutant concentration in the soils affected by the spill.

Author Keywords: Pyrite mine; Tailings oxidation; Pollutant solubilization; Soil contamination