Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Arsenic, Mining and the New England Pastoral Industry

Photo: Gordon Smith, Ottery Mine Remains.

Gordon Smith recently toured the mining areas on the westen side of New England's Northern Tablelands. You will find his photos here, here, here, here and here.

Gordon notes that tin and arsenic were mined at the Ottery Mine, not far from Emmaville, from the 1880’s. Here we see the remains of the brick condensation chambers where arsenic solids formed on the surface of brick walls (see pink substance at the lower right hand side of the photograph). Workers then scraped the arsenic from the bricks.

Arsenic was used quite extensively in gold mining to help extract the ore.

At Hillgrove east of Armidale, the soil around the old mine processing plants is still heavily impregnated with arsenic, as are the waters of Baker's Creek at the bottom of the adjoining Hillgrove Gorge. Traces of arsenic can be found in sediments along the Macleay River all the way to the river mouth.

Arsenic was also extensively used as a sheep dip.

My grandfather who came to Armidale as a farm labourer in 1907 described the practice this way.

"The next three years were spent partly on farms around Armidale but mainly on a sheep station south west of Uralla. It was my first experience with sheep and the primative means of combating worms in sheep. The one and only practice was to muster a mob of sheep in the late afternoon and starve them in the yards till early next morning. On the previous evening, up to 30 poor and wormy sheep were separated and given a drench. This consisted of arsenic boiled in water, the sediment being drawn off and the selected sheep were drenched. If not more than half were dead in the morning the drench was at the right strength. It was a crude and drastic treatment, but some years elapsed before an effective drench could be found for the greatest scourge of all Fluke (liver worm) and the Lung worm."

New England is dotted with small sites with arsenic impregnated soil where this practice was carried out.

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