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Assessing the Health Risk of Returning Gold Mining

Rapid City, South Dakota

Featured image for the project, Assessing the Health Risk of Returning Gold Mining

Current gold mining in the Black Hills, SD: Photo credit Kathrin Schilling

Recent exploration of more gold mines at the Black Hills can put more than 100,000 people at health risk due the potential drainage and release of toxic metals to nearby drinking water sources. This project aims to determine metal concentrations in rivers and creeks around an active gold mine and the currently non-impacted Rapid City watershed, the proposed area of future gold mines. Based on our data we will discuss the risk of metal contamination and potential exposure risk to the community and advise stakeholders to ensure clean and safe water drinking water in future.


The Community and the Project

The United States has the fourth-largest gold mine reserves in the world. With gold prices reaching a long-term high of $1,900 per ounce, it is profitable to launch new mining operations but this has detrimental impact to the environment and to local communities. Open cast gold mining destroys pristine habitats, generates tons of mine waste, and pollutes drinking water sources. According to the EPA’s Toxic Release inventory, the metal mining industry is responsible for more than 50% of pollution. In particular, heavy-metal leaching from gold mines is of major concern as it releases toxic chemicals such as mercury, arsenic and lead.

In the United States, gold mining activities mainly impact Native Americans and their land. The negative impact of gold mining around the Black Hills in South Dakota is known for over 40 years. The former Homestake gold mine caused widespread pollution of Whitewood Creek that warranted for designating the mine as a federal Superfund site for a long time and required an extensive cleanup. The active cleanup of Superfund site Gilt Edge, another former open pit gold mine, has been estimated to cost more than $120M. The Wharf gold mine, an open pit mine near Terry Peak, is still in operation. Therefore, community concern about new explorations and mining is legitimate due to these previously large-scale environmental disasters related to gold mining in the Black Hills.

Several mining companies conducted exploratory drilling projects near Silver City and Pactola Reservoir to extract gold. Recently the mining claims expanded even to the central and northern Black Hills. Thus, these exploration projects and proposed mining field combined are larger than the currently active open pit cyanide heap leach operation at the Wharf mine. The explored area for large-scale surface gold mines upstream from Pactola Reservoir and the Rapid Creek watershed, can have impact the main drinking water supply for Rapid City and surrounding communities. Gold mining activities could contaminate the surface water and groundwater sources used by these communities due to connections between Rapid Creek and the Minnelusa and Madison aquifers. This would put more than 100,000 people in the Black Hills at risk.


Our goal is to prevent future destructive mining in the Black Hills region to protect water resources.


Research questions:

Toxic elements released by gold mining may enter the drinking water resources. This exposure to these elements can cause cancer, genotoxicity and cardiovascular diseases. We will do a risk assessment in the Rapid City watershed to characterize the ecological and/or human health risk associated with the exposure to contaminants released by gold mining. We will focus on the following research question:

Can we identify sources and areas of metal contamination to prevent future exposures for the communities? 


Timeline and Milestones

First step (October 2021 – October 2022)

  • Collect surface water samples – upstream and downstream of the Wharf mine and the proposed mining area near Silver City and Pactola Reservoir
  • Collect community water samples near the mine
  • Collect soil samples near the mine and gardens of the community

Second step (December 2021 – February 2023)

  • Laboratory analysis of water and soil:
    • pH and alkalinity of water
    • Analyze As, Pb, Hg in surface and community water
    • Measure derivatives of cyanide

Third step (December 2022 – March 2023)

  • Assess environmental and human health risk of the gold mining activity in the Black Hills

Project Team

Community Leads

Rapid City SD Team Photo

Dr. Lilias Jarding (she/her) is a founder and co-coordinator for Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, and she has worked for much of the last 40 years to protect water.  Her Ph.D. is in Political Science with an emphasis on Environmental Policy, and she is also a semi-retired college professor.

Miana Fay emaciyapi (she/her) Anpetu Wašte Mitakuyepi, (good day my relatives). I am from the Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Nations. I am a full-time student at Oglala Lakota College and I am studying my B.A. Lakota Studies with emphasis on Lakota Language. I want to be a teacher for my people. I am also an intern for Black Hills Clean Water Alliance. Wopila.

Carla Marshall


Community Science Fellow and Community Scientist 

Dr Kathrin Schilling (she/her) is an Assistant Professor at Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. She holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Science and develops innovative isotopic tracers to study biogeochemistry, pollution and biomedical diseases, particularly cancer. She would like to inspire the next generation by addressing some big questions in environmental science including climate change, pollution and food sustainability.

Collaborating Organization(s)

Columbia University Trace Metals Laboratory


The Trace Metal Core Facility at Environmental Health Sciences, Columbia University supports the metal analysis of water samples.