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


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.





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Publication Info

Wang, Zhen, Ellen A Cowan, Keith C Seramur, Gary S Dwyer, Jessie C Wilson, Randall Karcher, Stefanie Brachfeld, Avner Vengosh, et al. (2022). Legacy of Coal Combustion: Widespread Contamination of Lake Sediments and Implications for Chronic Risks to Aquatic Ecosystems. Environmental science & technology, 56(20). pp. 14723–14733. 10.1021/acs.est.2c04717 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/26632.

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Avner Vengosh

Nicholas Distinguished Professor of Environmental Quality

Avner Vengosh is a Distinguished Professor and Nicholas Chair of Environmental Quality at the Nicholas School of the Environment. He is the chair of the Division of  Earth and Climate Sciences. Professor Vengosh and his team have studied the energy-water nexus, conducting pioneer research on the impact of hydraulic fracturing and coal ash disposal on the quantity and quality of water resources in the U.S. and China. He has also investigated the sources and mechanisms of water contamination in numerous countries across the globe, including salinity and radioactivity in the Middle East, uranium in India, fluoride in Eastern Africa, arsenic in Vietnam, and hexavalent chromium in North Carolina and China. As part of these studies, his team has developed novel geochemical and isotopic tracers that are used as fingerprints to delineate the sources of water contamination and evaluate potential risks for human health. Currently, his team is engaged in studying phosphate rocks geochemistry and the impact of fertilizers on soil and water quality, unconventional sources of critical raw materials, and potential environmental effects of lithium mining from hard rocks and brines. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America (GSA) and International Association of Geochemistry (IAGC). In 2019, 2020 and 2021 he was recognized as one of the Web of Science Highly Cited Researchers. He serves as an Editor of GeoHealth and on the editorial board of the journal Environmental Science and Technology. He has published 171 scientific papers in leading international journals. His recent cross-disciplinary book “Water Quality Impacts of the Energy-Water Nexus” (Cambridge University Press, 2020) provides an integrated assessment of the different scientific and policy tools around the energy-water nexus. It focuses on how water use, and wastewater and waste solids produced from fossil fuel energy production affect water quality and quantity. Summarizing cutting edge research, the book describes the scientific methods for detecting contamination sources in the context of policy and regulations.

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