Have you noticed that the water in a river or stream near your home has taken on a yellow or orange color? Are you wondering what might be causing the strange discoloration? The peculiar hue of the waterway is likely caused by yellow boy -- a hazardous, acidic byproduct of mining operations.
How Yellow Boy Forms
The target metals of most mines are found in rocks that also contain sulfur compounds. These compounds pose no harm as long as they are buried deep within the earth where they aren't exposed to any oxygen. As mining operations disturb the earth in their search for gold, silver, copper, or any other precious metal, however, more and more of these sulfur-containing compounds are brought to the surface. There, as the compounds come in contact with air and water, they form sulfuric acid. This sulfuric acid, if not properly contained, can drain away from the mines and into surrounding waterways.
Once enough of this sulfuric acid enters a waterway to raise the pH of the water to 3, dissolved iron in the water begins to precipitate into solid iron hydroxide -- a yellow solid that is responsible for the odd color of the water you've noticed in the river or stream. .
The Dangers Of Yellow Boy
Iron hydroxide itself isn't dangerous; it's actually used as a pigment in many cosmetics and tattoo inks. The problem comes from the fact that it can only form in water that is highly acidic. If you've seen yellow boy in a river or stream, that water or stream is polluted by dangerous, acidic mine drainage. How acidic is the water? It's at least as acidic as a glass of orange juice or soda, but that's the low end of the spectrum. If enough contamination has occurred, the water in the stream or river could be as harsh as battery acid.
The Lasting Effects
How much harm can come from mine drainage contamination? The acid runoff can kill all biological life within miles of the source of contamination. That's exactly what happened with one river in Colorado; everything within 17 miles of one polluting mine was killed and, to date, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent over $210 million trying to clean up the mess.
In total, 12,000 miles of rivers and streams have been affected by mine contamination, as well as 180,000 acres of reservoirs and lakes. The cleanup efforts are expected to cost the country between $32 billion and $72 billion.
This problem isn't only one of active mines, either. Even mines that have been long abandoned can still be gradually polluting waterways. The acid-creating compounds in waste rock that has been piled up and forgotten about, and pits that have been dug and left, will continuously pollute nearby waterways until they are properly cleaned up.
What To Do If You See Yellow Boy
If you've noticed the characteristic yellow or orange tinge of mine drainage in a waterway near you, report it to the Environmental Protection Agency. Whether a mine is still operating in the area or not, the damage will only grow worse with time.
In order to clean up the problem and prevent more damage from occurring, water treatment specialists will need to be called into the area. All acid-producing rock will need to be collected and buried so it can no longer be exposed to oxygen. Furthermore, the waterway will need to be treated with a neutralizing agent such as lime or caustic soda to lower their acidity level to a degree that can again support biological life.
Mine drainage is a very serious, very wide-spread problem. If you come across a contaminated waterway, report it immediately. The sooner the pollution is reported, the less opportunity it will have to spread farther and do more damage. Once you've reported the problem, consider contacting your state officials and asking them to lobby for tighter mine regulations and harsher punishments for mining operations who contribute to the ever-growing problem of acid mine drainage pollution.
If you use a well for water, you may also want to work with a treatment company like Valley Pump Inc to make sure the water in your well is safe from contamination.