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Mine tailings can provide a long-term source of environmental contamination. Lead-zinc mine tailings can represent a source of toxic elements-Pb and Zn through mobilization into surface water, and then into downstream rivers. Previous studies have shown that migration of heavy metals can be mitigated by carbonate rock. This research investigates the characterization of heavy metals and sulphur isotope in a downstream river of the Shanshulin Pb-Zn mine, which is located in Guizhou province in China, a typical carbonate area in the world. A slight alkalinity (pH > 8) of the river water is maintained owing to the carbonate rich country rocks. The results of this study show that heavy metals in water can be strongly adsorbed by suspended solids and therefore decrease more quickly than in sediments. Pb and Zn contents in water close to the waste pile are 6780 μg L-1 and 324 μg L-1 (Pb and Zn in water not affected by mine waste piles are only 3.71 μg L-1 and 11.6 μg L-1) respectively, meaning that the water is severely contaminated by the pile. Thirty kilometers downstream Pb and Zn contents in water drop quickly to 3.15 μg L-1 and 16.4 μg L-1. In contrast, Pb and Zn contents in sediment close to the waste pile are 4553 mg kg-1 and 7971 mg kg-1 respectively, and are still high 30 km downstream with measurements of 3334 mg kg-1 and 7268 mg kg-1 respectively (Pb and Zn contents in sediment not affected by mine waste piles are only 20 mg kg-1 and 120 mg kg-1). This indicates that the impact of tailings on the sediment can be much further than on water. In sediment, Pb exists mostly as carbonate and oxide fractions, Zn mostly as sulfide+organic fraction, and Cu mostly as sulfide+organic, residual and carbonate fractions. Sulphur characteristics indicate that sulphur in sediment originates from mine tailing, soil and suspended solids in other tributaries, whereas sulphur in water originates from mine tailing dissolution, spring water, rain water and dissolution of gypsum. In conclusion, the environmental impact of mine tailing can be indicated by heavy metals content, sulphur content and sulphur isotope of sediment. On the other hand, heavy metal content, sulphur content or sulphur isotope of water are possibly not good indicators for mine impact due to mitigation of carbonate rocks, sorption of heavy metals, as well as interference of gypsum layers.

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