Exploration geochemical and mineralogical studies by the U.S. Geological Survey at the Pebble porphyry Cu-Au-Mo deposit were designed to (1) determine whether the concealed deposit can be detected with surface samples, (2) better understand the processes of metal migration from the deposit to the surface, and (3) test existing methods for assessing concealed mineral resources and/or develop new ones. Surface water (ponds, streams, and springs), pond and stream sediment, soils subjected to various leaching techniques, and glacial till samples were collected. The tilted nature of the undisturbed orebody, varying depth of cover, and later glacial processes, strongly influence the geochemical responses and processes active on the various sample media. The multimedia approach aids in identifying possible processes that caused the significant geochemical variations within and among the various media. These processes include the following:
In the Pebble West zone, thin cover and local exposure of the orebody have facilitated the oxidation of pyrite and other sulfides, and associated ferrous-ferric iron reactions, resulting in the local natural acidification of ponds observed in the West zone, and in associated metal anomalies in waters, sediments, and soils.
In contrast, the East zone is concealed by both glacial deposits and underlying thick cover rocks, which precludes the oxidation of sulfides in the underlying orebody. Low-level geochemical anomalies in circumneutral spring and pond waters from the East zone are discernible only by using high resolution-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry with lower limits of determination two and perhaps three orders of magnitude lower than traditional methods. A variety of partial leaches of soils over the East zone reveal geochemical anomalies in a similar suite of elements that may be related to upwelling waters from depth along graben-bounding faults.
The indicator minerals gold, jarosite, and andradite in till reveal a displaced mineralogical anomaly to the west and south of the Pebble orebody, as ore-related minerals were scraped from the orebody and deposited in till downice of the deposit. Geochemical anomalies in pond water and sediment over the displaced till are attributed to the ore-related minerals in till. This orientation study demonstrates the strong control of local geologic and geochemical settings on the effectiveness of different traditional and newer reconnaissance geochemical exploration techniques and thus has important implications for exploration.