Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Antimony and the Macleay River

Antimony is a metal that is very well represented in our region. Many people have not heard of antimony as it is one of those elements that is ‘hidden away’ in many metal alloys and plastics and therefore often outshone by the more well known ones such as Iron, Nickel, Cobalt etc. It is a very important element for use in electronics and to modify the properties of rubber and plastics. It is even used in the cosmetics industry and HIV treatment medication (Wilson et al 2010). The main antimony mineral is called stibnite, an antimony sulphide mineral with the chemical formula Sb2S3, though there are many other less common antimony minerals.

The geographical distribution of antimony mineralisation in the Northern Rivers and New England closely follows certain geological units intruded by granite type plutons during the Permian (Ashley & Craw 2004). Essentially these deposits fall into the category of mesothermal mineral deposits meaning that they were formed through the action of hot fluids under pressure within the earth. The heat source is from regional heat increase due to the intrusion of many granites and sometimes from the actual contact zone of individual intrusions. The source of the fluids can be existing water in sedimentary rock pore space and/or derived from the breakdown of hydrous minerals such as clays. This hot water (often accompanied by elevated salts) can dissolve elements such as antimony as well as others such as gold and silver and then as they cool these elements are redeposited. In practice this tends to mean that the elements are located within veins of quartz or carbonate.

Probably the best known deposit of antimony is the Hillgrove Mine east of Armidale. The mine is in the headwaters of the Macleay River and was first mined for gold at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed Hillgrove had a gold rush of such size that it was much bigger than Armidale (now its population is less than a hundred, I think). But many other areas have extensive mineralisation of antimony such as the area to the west of Bowraville in the headwaters of the Nambucca River catchment, areas north of Dorrigo in the headwaters of the Nymboida River catchment and even areas as far north as Tooloom which is to the north of Drake in the upper portions of the Clarence River catchment. Some of these deposits have been mined historically, though in the main gold has been the target and antimony just a by-product.

Antimony is an interesting element because it is chemically closely related to arsenic and therefore behaves in a similar way. This means it can also be dangerous in high concentrations and its environmental impact can be significant at even moderate to low levels, however, the nature of antimony has not been as extensively researched as arsenic and therefore the drinking water and environmental limits in Australia have been set lower than arsenic to increase the safety margin in assessing whether there is likely to be an adverse impact (Ashley et at 2004).

Interestingly, unlike many other elements that can be mobilised by the creation of sulphuric acid during the oxidation of the parent sulphide mineral, antimony tends not to remain in solution for long because the nature of the mineralisation model is such that carbonates are often present which neutralises the acids and leads to settling out of the antimony from the water column with iron and other metals. However, if the sediment is transported then this can be deposited a huge distance from its source and in some situations can be re-mobilized because of local stagnant water during dry periods combined with the presence of natural humic acids. This behaviour has been observed in the Macleay River catchment as suspended sediment from the areas around Hillgrove has been deposited on the flood plains as far away as Kempsey, very low concentrations of antimony are usually found in clear, clean water in the region. However, Wilson et al (2010) has shown that sometimes high antimony contents of alluvial soils can lead to uptake by flora and therefore this contaminant can then be accumulated in animals that graze on these plants.


*Ashley, P.M. & Craw, D. 2004. Structural controls on hydrothermal alteration and gold-antimony mineralisation in the Hillgrove area, NSW, Australia. Mineralium Deposita v39.
*Ashley, P.M., Craw, D., Graham, B.P. & Chappell, D.A. 2003. Environmental mobility of antimony around mesothermal stibnite deposits, New South Wales, Australia and southern New Zealand. Journal of Geochemical Exploration v77
*Craw, D, Wilson, N. & Ashley, P.M. 2004. Geochemical controls on the environmental mobility of Sb and As at mesothermal antimony and gold deposits. Applied Earth Science (Transactions of the International Mineralogy and Metallurgy Bulletin). v 113.
*Wilson, S.C., Lockwood, P.V., Ashley, P.M., & Tighe, M. 2010. The chemistry and behaviour of antimony in the soil environment with comparisons to arsenic: a critical review. Environmetnal Pollution v158.


  1. Calling into Hillgrove/Metz on Saturday both very interesting gold rush villages.

    1. Be sure to visit the mining museum in Hillgrove.

  2. Seem to be quite a few antimony deposits in the area. Although antimony is so useful, the fact that it behaves like arsenic should make us very cautious about how we use it.

    1. You are quite correct. The geological history of the area means that there is a lot of Antimony deposits in the area - some of those even unaffected by mining contribute high levels of heavy metals in their own right!

      As for safety, the experts that have developed the ANZECC guidelines (for the environment) and Drinking Water Guidelines (for human drinking purposes) have considered the potential for Antimony to be as bad as or worse than Arsenic.

      The Health issues around Arsenic have been researched in detail, however, the nature of antimony has not been as extensively researched. Because of this the ANZECC and ADW guidelines have been set lower than that arsenic to allow an increased safety margin. This reflects the uncertainty around the metal.