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Arsenic speciation in the lower Athabasca River watershed: A geochemical investigation of the dissolved and particulate phases

Donner, Mark W., Javed, Muhammad Babar, Shotyk, William, Francesconi, Kevin A., Siddique, Tariq
Environmental pollution 2017 v.224 pp. 265-274
arsenic, bioavailability, environmental health, groundwater, humans, mine tailings, mining, rivers, thorium, watersheds, Alberta
Human and ecosystem health concerns for arsenic (As) in the lower Athabasca River downstream of Athabasca Bituminous Sands (ABS) mining (Alberta, Canada) prompted an investigation to determine its forms in surface and groundwater upstream and downstream of industry. Dissolved As species, together with total and particulate As, were used to evaluate the potential bioavailability of As in water as well as to decipher inputs from natural geological processes and ABS mining and upgrading activities. Water samples were collected from the river in October at 13 locations in 2014 and 19 locations in 2015, spanning up to 125 km. Additional samples were collected from groundwater, tributaries and springs. “Dissolved” (<0.45 μm) As was consistently low in the Athabasca River (average 0.37 ± 0.01 and 0.34 ± 0.01 μg L⁻¹ in 2014 and 2015, respectively) as well as tributaries and springs (<1 μg L⁻¹), with As(V) as the predominant form. The average total As concentration was higher in 2014 (12.7 ± 2.8 μg L⁻¹) than 2015 (3.3 ± 0.65 μg L⁻¹) with nearly all As associated with suspended solids (>0.45 μm). In 2014, when total As concentrations were greater, a significant correlation (p < 0.05) was observed with thorium in particles > 0.45 μm, suggesting that mineral material is an important source of As. Naturally saline groundwater contained low dissolved As (<2 μg L⁻¹) and did not appear to be a significant source to the river. Arsenic in shallow groundwater near a tailings pond exceeded 50 μg L⁻¹ predominantly as As(III) warranting further investigation.