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The effects of biogeochemical sinks on the mobility of trace metals in an area affected by acid mine drainage, Huff Run, Ohio

The Watershed Hydrology lab will be out in force for the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Vancouver in October. Over the next few days, we’ll be sharing the abstracts of the work we are presenting there.


TRAUB, Eric L., Department of Geology, Kent State University, 325 S. Lincoln St, 221 McGilvrey Hall, Kent, OH 44240,, JEFFERSON, Anne J., Department of Geology, Kent State University, 221 McGilvrey Hall, Kent, OH 44240, and SINGER, David M., Department of Geology, Kent State University, 228 McGilvrey Hall, Kent, OH 44242
Currently, a watershed restoration group has made progress in remediating surface water contributions to the Huff Run Stream in Mineral City, OH, which is heavily affected by acid mine drainage (AMD) due to historical coal mining. However, the accumulation of AMD sediments on the streambed has prevented the overall ecological health of the area from rebounding. A proposed remediation plan includes dredging, however the efficacy of doing so while preventing further iron buildup and the potential release of trace metals during such an operation is uncertain. The objectives of this research are to examine the effects geochemical sinks can have on the fate and transport of trace metals in order to understand the possible side effects of dredging on the Huff Run. This work aims to build a framework on which to base proposed remediation plans at a wide range of acid-mine drainage impacted sites. To achieve these objectives cores were gathered from the Huff Run and the Farr tributary, where a large amount of AMD is discharged into the Huff Run. These core sediments were analyzed through XRD analysis to understand the abundance and distribution of mineral phases, and ICP analysis to provide information on the amount of trace metals and understand what mineral phases they are associated with. Groundwater piezometers installed in AMD-bearing sediments and streambed sediment were used to quantify changes in trace metals concentrations. The analyses of cores gathered from the stream provide evidence that overtime deposited iron oxides go through thermodynamic transformations into more stable phases, mainly goethite. On-going work aims to determine how mineralogical transformations impact the availability of trace metals. Hydraulic head values gathered the piezometers have shown that hyporheic exchange is occurring, despite the deposition of fine grained sediment and iron oxides from historical mining. Water samples collected from the piezometers have been analyzed for pH and conductivity and show consistent changes as the water is exchanged from the surface and groundwater. On-going work aims to determine how this exchange affects the transport of trace metals.

Mountaintop Removal Mining

This semester I’m teaching Environmental Earth Science to a fantastic group of students at Kent State. In tomorrow’s class about fossil fuels, we’ll be talking about coal formation, use, and environmental consequences. A big one I think they should be aware of is the practice of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. We’ve already talked about it a bit, but I think this video gives some nice visuals, even if the narration veers a bit from overly dramatic to “boys with toys”.

From the Smithsonian:

Several well-respected scientists are working to figure out the impact of mountaintop removal mining on stream ecosystems. The coal companies haven’t exactly lined up to fund their work and provide access to the sites. So what *do* we know about the impacts of mountaintop mining on Appalachian streams and rivers? Here’s just one example, from the abstract of Bernhardt and Palmer (2011):

Southern Appalachian forests are recognized as a biodiversity hot spot of global significance, particularly for endemic aquatic salamanders and mussels. The dominant driver of land-cover and land-use change in this region is surface mining, with an ever-increasing proportion occurring as mountaintop mining with valley fill operations (MTVF). In MTVF, seams of coal are exposed using explosives, and the resulting noncoal overburden is pushed into adjacent valleys to facilitate coal extraction. To date, MTVF throughout the Appalachians have converted 1.1 million hectares of forest to surfacemines and buried more than 2,000 km of stream channel beneath mining overburden. The impacts of these lost forests and buried streams are propagated throughout the river networks of the region as the resulting sediment and chemical pollutants are transmitted downstream. There is, to date, no evidence to suggest that the extensive chemical and hydrologic alterations of streams by MTVF can be offset or reversed by currently required reclamation and mitigation practices.

Here’s an overview of the consequences and some suggested policy recommendations, presented in Science in 2010.

Among the scientists working on the environmental consequences of mountaintop removal, Margaret Palmer has become perhaps the most visible. Here she is on the Colbert Report:

(Note: the content appears to be unavailable tonight. Hopefully it will be made available again soon.)

Finally, here’s an profile of Margaret Palmer and her work on mountaintop removal mining, published earlier this year in Science magazine.

For more information:

Coal, the High Arctic, and the fossil record of climate change

Coals exposed along Stenkul Fiord, southern Ellesmere Island, Canadian Arctic

For more than 55 million years, Ellesmere Island remained in one place while the world around it changed. Fifty-five million years ago, verdant forests grew at 75° North latitude. These wetland forests, [comprised] of species now primarily found in China, grew on an alluvial plain where channels meandered back and forth and periodic floods buried stumps, logs, and leaves intact. Today the forests are preserved as coal seams that outcrop on the edges …[of] modern Ellesmere Island, [where] there are no forests, and the tallest vegetation grows less than 15 cm high. Large parts of the area are polar desert, subject to intensely cold and dark winters and minimal precipitation.

These are the opening lines to my M.S. thesis, in which I contrasted the Paleocene-Eocene and modern hydrological environments of Stenkul Fiord, on southern Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. My thesis goes on to describe a world that no longer exists, except in the fossil record preserved at sites in the High Arctic.  This former world may provide clues as to how polar flora and fauna and their physical environment responded to global mean surface temperatures that were 2-4 degrees warmer than they are today, yet are right in line with the predictions for the end of this century. These clues, recorded in the fossil and stratigraphic record in coal and sediment layers on remote Ellesmere Island, well north of the northernmost civilian settlement in North America, are under attack. The same human demand for energy for that is driving up global temperatures is threatening to erase the very fossils that record polar life under a warmer temperature regime. The government of Canada’s Nunavut territory is currently considering claims by Westar Resources, Inc. to mine the coal beds in one of the most spectacular of all the fossil localities in the High Arctic.

During the Paleocene and Eocene, tropical vegetation extended to 50° N, and broad-leaved evergreens reached 70° N. There was no permanent polar ice, and large parts of the polar regions were covered by forests dominated by cypresses and angiosperms. Fossilized remnants of these forests are found in locations such as Spitsbergen, Greenland, the Yukon, northeastern Asia, and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This widespread Arcto-Tertiary forest nearly disappeared as the climate cooled over the past 30 million years and modern temperate forests. Today the last remnants of this flora are preserved in the mountains of China’s Sichuan province.

modern Metasequoia glyptostroboides trunk

Modern Metasequoia glyptostroboides trunk (Image: Wikimedia)

Among the signature trees of the Arcto-Tertiary fossil record is the Metasequoia, a genus which was thought to have gone extinct in the Miocene until an isolated grove of  Metasequoia glyptostroboides, or dawn redwood, was discovered in Sichuan in 1944.  Metasequoia grows to 60 m tall and unlike sequoias, it is deciduous and loses its leaves in the winter.  This would have been quite handy for life in the High Arctic, where in the Paleocene-Eocene winter temperatures might have hovered just above freezing, but would still have been dark for six months of the year.

Metasequoia log, Stenkul Fiord, Ellesmere Island (photo by Anne Jefferson)

Metasequoia log, Stenkul Fiord, Ellesmere Island (photo by Anne Jefferson)

Metasequoia stump, Stenkul Fiord, Ellesmere Island (photo by Anne Jefferson)

Metasequoia stump in its growth position, Stenkul Fiord, Ellesmere Island (photo by Anne Jefferson)

At the site where I worked on Ellesmere Island, there were large Metasequoia logs and tree stumps still rooted in situ in the coal layers. Picking apart the coal layers, I could pull out Metasequoia leaves, twigs, and male and female cones. The siltstones between the coals preserved beautiful fossil impressions of a variety of tree leaves and stems.

An early Eocene tapir fossil from Ellesmere Island (Image courtesy of Jaelyn Eberle)

An early Eocene tapir fossil from Ellesmere Island (Image courtesy of Jaelyn Eberle)

My field site on Stenkul Fiord yielded only plant fossils, and for now, is safe from the development plans of Westar Resources and the Nunavut government. But a bit north at Strathcona Fiord, plants are second fiddle to the best vertebrate fossil locality of the Canadian High Arctic. At Strathcona Fiord,  the fossil record shows that those Eocene forests were inhabited by alligators, giant tortoises, primates, tapirs, and the hippo-like Coryphodon. There have been over 40 papers published on the Eocene fossils of Strathcona Fiord alone. It’s not just the Eocene that makes Strathcona Fiord an amazing fossil locality either. Pliocene layers at Strathcona Fiord have yielded plants, insects, mollusks, fish, frog and mammals such as  black bear, 3-toed horse, beaver,  and badger. It is the only known Pliocene Arctic site with vertebrate remains.

Strathcona Fiord is one of three sites where Westar Resources, Inc. plans to mine the coal. Mining the coal will permanently destroy the embedded fossils and the possibilities for any additional discoveries at this site. The other two Ellesmere Island areas in which Westar has applied for mining permits are the Fosheim and Bache Pennisulas. We don’t know as much about the paleontology of these areas, but the little work that has been done on the Fosheim Peninsula has already discovered Eocene leaf beds and Pliocene fossils.

Paleontologists and geologists around the world are raising their voices in opposition to the proposed coal mining at Strathcona Fiord and the other sites on Ellesmere Island. The Society for Vertebrate Paleontology has issued a press release expressing concern and urging the preservation of the fossils resources. There is also a coordinated letter-writing campaign to the Nunavut Impact Review Board. I’ve just sent a letter to the review board, which I’ve appended below. If you a paleontologist, paleoclimatologist, geologist, Arctic lover, fossil lover, or otherwise moved by the incredible story of alligators and towering trees at 75° N, I urge you join me in writing to the government of Nunavut and encourage them to at least require more study of the localities before mining is approved. Letters can be sent electronically to

To the members of the Nunavut Impact Review Board,

I appreciate the opportunity to write to you concerning the proposed Westar coal project on Ellesmere Island. I am a geologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and my research focuses on the intersection of hydrology, landscapes, and climate. My graduate M.S. thesis research focused on the paleo-environments of the Eureka Sound Group exposed at Stenkul Fiord on southern Ellesmere Island. I used the coal and sediment layers, and the fossils they contain, to understand variability of hydrological environments that existed in the Arctic 55 million years ago. Today, I work on issues of water and modern climate change, but my perspective was profoundly influenced by the time I spent on Ellesmere Island walking amidst the coal layers and fossilized tree trunks.

The proposed activities by Westar Resources, Inc. could damage or destroy fossil sites that form an important part of Nunavut’s history and environmental legacy. These fossils tell us about the history of Arctic plants and animals, and they are recognized internationally for their scientific importance. They also provide important evidence from a time when Earth, especially the Arctic, was warmer. The fossils of the Ellesmere Island sites proposed for mining by Ellesmere Island provide clues as to how polar flora and fauna and their physical environment responded to global mean surface temperatures that were 2-4 degrees warmer than they are today, yet are right in line with the predictions for the end of this century. Ultimately, I hope that evidence from Nunavut’s fossil record can help us better estimate and prepare for future climate change.

If the fossil sites in the Westar coal project areas are destroyed the evidence is lost forever, therefore I recommend that the Nunavut Impact Review Board advise the Minister, pursuant to article 12.4.4(a) of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement, that the project proposal requires review under Part 5 or 6. I believe that much more paleontological and paleoclimatic research can be conducted at these sites before any coal is extracted from them and we lose the opportunity to learn all that we can.

I thank you for your consideration, and request that you keep me informed of the results of this screening process.