Ultramafic rocks are considered as the most important geogenic sources of Cr whose hexavalent species is of environmental concern. In tropical to subtropical areas (e.g. New Caledonia, Brazil, Philippines), prolonged and pervasive weathering of ultramafic rocks produces Ni laterite ores which are further enriched in Cr. While elevated levels of Cr have been identified in Ni laterites, Cr availability and export from these deposits and its contribution to natural waters remain poorly understood. Therefore, this study examined the speciation and flux of Cr in a Ni laterite profile through sequential extraction and leaching experiments coupled with physical, mineralogical, and geochemical characterization. These were correlated to the behavior and export of Cr in surrounding surface waters studied through hydrochemical investigation. This work demonstrates, through the example of the Rio Tuba Ni laterite deposit, that pervasive weathering of ultramafic rocks in tropical areas generate very important reservoirs of Cr(VI). Although Cr is primarily fixed in insoluble fractions (>89%) and least in bioavailable and easily mobilizable phases (<1%), due to the inherent elevated Cr content (up to 2.9 wt%) of the Ni laterites, the latter still provided water-extractable Cr(VI) contents surpassing drinking water and freshwater standards. By comparison with the silicate-rich saprolite unit, the overlying Fe-(oxyhydr)oxide dominated laterite layer yielded lower Cr(VI) contents due to its acidic nature and higher amounts of organic matter and Fe-(oxyhydr)oxides which promote reduction and readsorption of Cr(VI). During water infiltration, Cr(VI) migrates downward along the profile at a rate of 62 to 3446 t/km2/yr. While the alkaline and oxidizing conditions of the surrounding surface waters favor Cr(VI) mobilization, only a fraction of Cr(VI) from the Ni laterites reaches these water bodies. Cr(VI) concentrations (≤213 μg/L) and fluxes (mostly ≤50 kg/km2/yr) in the surface waters being significantly lower than that of the Ni laterites reflect the action of processes (e.g. dilution, reduction, adsorption) that attenuate the release of this species along water flow paths.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Geochemistry and Petrology