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Science Research Class at Walden School on our second collection trip.

Science Research Class at Walden School on our second collection trip.

After our fall semester, my research science class ended and the two sections of chemistry were consolidated down to one, with me teaching a computer technology course third period instead of chemistry. Without the two classes that could support the Tintic soil analysis project, I had to put the project on hold until I could get some more students involved. We also had an unusually cold January and February, with snow staying on the ground. This hampered our ability to collect samples. Between 3rd and 4th terms we hold a two-week Intersession at Walden School of Liberal Arts that allows us to teach specialty courses, and I dedicated my course entirely to finishing the Tintic project.

Altogether five students took the course, including Jeffery, Indi, Sean, Jem, and Aaron. To finish collecting all the samples, we had to take three additional trips down to the Eureka area. We were fortunate that the weather cooperated and warmed up enough that the snow melted.

Our second collection trip was on March 5 to the area of the Knight Smelter, the cyanide leeching pile, and Silver City. We stopped at the Bullion Beck Headframe on the way to take a group shot.

Ruins of the Knight Smelter built by Jessie Knight to process silver ore.

Ruins of the Knight Smelter built by Jessie Knight to process silver ore.

The Knight Smelter was built by silver tycoon Jesse Knight, who made his initial fortune with the Humbug Mine, then expanded along the Iron Blossom lode. Eventually, Uncle Jesse needed a smelter to concentrate and refine the ores from his mines, and he built it south of Eureka near the Union Pacific line. To connect his mines with the smelter and the Union Pacific main line, he built a narrow gauge railroad so that the smaller engines could make the turns and the steeper grades. A fairly level grade was built around the hills into his mines, and the road I walked on to the Iron Blossom #2 last fall followed this old grade. Jesse Knight contributed quite a bit of money to what was then the fledgling Brigham Young Academy, now Brigham Young University. The Jesse Knight Building, where I had several classes, is named after him.

Tank foundations and kiln at the Knight Smelter

Tank foundations and kiln at the Knight Smelter

The technology for refining ore went through rapid change in the 1920s. The smelter only operated for about four years, at which point it became cheaper to ship the ore by rail to the more modern smelters in Murray. The same thing happened with the Tintic Standard Mine and the reduction mill near Goshen.

There isn’t much left of the Knight Smelter except crumbling foundations for the solution tanks, a few archways where the kilns stood, and a pile of slag. Just to the south is the leeching pile. During the 1980s the price of gold jumped up when we went off the gold standard and the price was allowed to rise. Investing gurus such as Warren Buffet were advising people to invest in gold, and that drove up the price even more. Now, all these old tailings and waste rock piles that hadn’t been economical to process suddenly were. A layer of thick plastic was laid down and the waste rock crushed and piled onto the plastic, then a solution of cyanide was pumped over the pile. The cyanide would chelate with the gold and silver and trickle down through the pile into its lowest area, where it was pumped out and transported for smelting. This same process is being used at the Cripple Creek and Victor gold mine in Colorado.

Collecting a sample inside the kiln at Knight Smelter

Collecting a sample inside the kiln at Knight Smelter

We walked into the old smelter ruins and identified spots where there would likely be contamination, such as inside the kiln and underneath the tanks. We saw that a layer of sand was laid down under the tanks over the original soil, which is now covered with new soil deposited since the 1920s. We also collected samples from the top of the leeching pile. I picked up some samples of slag as well.

This smelter took the original ore and concentrated it by crushing and chemical action, using both physical and chemical separations. Mercury was used to bind to the silver (amalgamation). The amalgam was then heated up in a kiln to drive off the mercury and leave silver and gold. Since the silver started out in a compound with a higher oxidation state (+1) and was now a metal with an oxidation state of 0, this process is also called reduction. There were several reduction mills in the Tintic District. The leftover ore, after heating, still contained appreciable amounts of iron and lead, and was dumped onto a heap in a molten state. This waste material is called slag.

Slag at the Knight Smelter.

Slag at the Knight Smelter.

Sample under the tank foundations. Notice the layering of the soil; a layer of sand was laid down under the tanks when they were first built which is now covered with new topsoil.

Sample under the tank foundations. Notice the layering of the soil; a layer of sand was laid down under the tanks when they were first built which is now covered with new topsoil.

We moved on to the waste rock pile at Silver City where the Swansea Consolidated mine was located. Here, water runoff since the pile was created in the 1980s has washed small gullies fanning out south of the pile, crossing the road, and going on down the valley. The asphalt on the road is stained red with the iron sulfides. We collected on the pile itself, and used a portable pH meter to test the soil at locations on and near the pile. It was still too muddy to walk around much, and we were getting short on time, so we packed back up and drove back to Provo. We collected ten samples from five sites on this trip.

Testing the soil around the Swansea mine dump. The pH is very low, under 3.0.

Testing the soil around the Swansea mine dump. The pH is very low, under 3.0.

Sample at the Swansea Consolidated dump near Silver City

Sample at the Swansea Consolidated dump near Silver City

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by Morgan Knapp

Guest Host

Mercury poisoning, as I’m sure you can guess, comes from contact with mercury.  Typical symptoms of mercury poisoning are: an itching or burning pain, swelling, skin shedding, high blood pressure, discoloration of the skin (see picture below), and an increase in saliva production.  “But how do I get mercury poisoning”, you ask. Well, you can get mercury poisoning from too much direct contact with mercury.  It is contained in some makeup, in some vaccines and medicines, amalgam teeth fillings, as well as broken fluorescent light bulbs, and of course fish.

mercury mottling

Mottled skin from mercury poisoning

Consumption of fish is the main source of mercury poisoning nowadays. It is hard for a fish to get rid of mercury in its system, so when it is eaten, the next fish up on the food chain collects the mercury from the fish being consumed. Therefore, the higher the fish on the food chain, the more mercury it is likely to contain. Tuna, whale and dolphin are fish that usually have high mercury levels. So it’s not good to eat large amounts of any of those fish. In fact the actor Jeremy Piven was diagnosed with a disease caused by mercury poisoning, from eating sushi twice a day for almost twenty years.  The earliest account we know of mercury poisoning was Qin Shi Huang. Qing Shi Huang was an emperor of China who took mercury pills that he believed would give him eternal life. But of course it did the opposite and killed him. Large amounts of people have been subject to mercury poisoning from improper use of it at schools, including students and teachers holding mercury in their bare hands and playing with it…not such a good idea.

Fish table

Amounts of mercury in different types of fish

Detecting Mercury Poisoning: The common way to test for mercury poisoning is taking urine or blood samples and evaluating them.

Prevention: If you happen to come into close contact with mercury, it is recommended to immediately wash your skin with soap and water, then go to a doctor for evaluation. Chelation is a process used to get rid of mercury and other harmful metal poisonings. There are different chemicals that are used for different types of chelation, but chelation is done by taking pills orally. Over time it reduces the amount of mercury in your body. Some people believe that some forms of autism is caused by mercury poisoning, and chelation has been used to try and cure those with autism. The medical field is skeptical of chelation and say that it doesn’t have much affect on anything. It hasn’t been proven to help autism either. Chelation is also very dangerous; it can cause kidney failure, cardiac arrhythmias, vomiting, nausea, and even death.  There have been more than thirty recorded deaths from chelation since the 1970’s.

The moral of the story is: be careful around mercury, because it is hard to cure mercury poisoning!

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