Legacy of Coal Combustion: Widespread Contamination of Lake Sediments and Implications for Chronic Risks to Aquatic Ecosystems

Zhen Wang, Ellen A. Cowan, Keith C. Seramur, Gary S. Dwyer, Jessie C. Wilson, Randall Karcher, Stefanie Brachfeld, Avner Vengosh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations

Abstract

Elevated concentrations of toxic elements in coal ash pose human and ecological health risks upon release to the environment. Despite wide public concerns about water quality and human health risks from catastrophic coal ash spills and chronic leaking of coal ash ponds, coal ash disposal has only been partially regulated, and its impacts on aquatic sediment quality and ecological health have been overlooked. Here, we present a multiproxy approach of morphologic, magnetic, geochemical, and Sr isotopic analyses, revealing unmonitored coal ash releases over the past 40 to 70 years preserved in the sediment records of five freshwater lakes adjacent to coal-fired power plants across North Carolina. We detected significant sediment contamination and potential chronic ecological risks posed by the occurrence of hundreds of thousands of tons of coal ash solids mainly resulting from high-magnitude stormwater runoff/flooding and direct effluent discharge from coal ash disposal sites. The proximity of hundreds of disposal sites to natural waterways across the U.S. implies that such contamination is likely prevalent nationwide and expected to worsen with climate change.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2022

Keywords

  • aquatic ecosystems
  • coal ash
  • lacustrine sediment
  • multiproxy tracing

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