Isotopic imprints of mountaintop mining contaminants.


Mountaintop mining (MTM) is the primary procedure for surface coal exploration within the central Appalachian region of the eastern United States, and it is known to contaminate streams in local watersheds. In this study, we measured the chemical and isotopic compositions of water samples from MTM-impacted tributaries and streams in the Mud River watershed in West Virginia. We systematically document the isotopic compositions of three major constituents: sulfur isotopes in sulfate (δ(34)SSO4), carbon isotopes in dissolved inorganic carbon (δ(13)CDIC), and strontium isotopes ((87)Sr/(86)Sr). The data show that δ(34)SSO4, δ(13)CDIC, Sr/Ca, and (87)Sr/(86)Sr measured in saline- and selenium-rich MTM impacted tributaries are distinguishable from those of the surface water upstream of mining impacts. These tracers can therefore be used to delineate and quantify the impact of MTM in watersheds. High Sr/Ca and low (87)Sr/(86)Sr characterize tributaries that originated from active MTM areas, while tributaries from reclaimed MTM areas had low Sr/Ca and high (87)Sr/(86)Sr. Leaching experiments of rocks from the watershed show that pyrite oxidation and carbonate dissolution control the solute chemistry with distinct (87)Sr/(86)Sr ratios characterizing different rock sources. We propose that MTM operations that access the deeper Kanawha Formation generate residual mined rocks in valley fills from which effluents with distinctive (87)Sr/(86)Sr and Sr/Ca imprints affect the quality of the Appalachian watersheds.





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Publication Info

Vengosh, Avner, T Ty Lindberg, Brittany R Merola, Laura Ruhl, Nathaniel R Warner, Alissa White, Gary S Dwyer, Richard T Di Giulio, et al. (2013). Isotopic imprints of mountaintop mining contaminants. Environ Sci Technol, 47(17). pp. 10041–10048. 10.1021/es4012959 Retrieved from

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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.

Di Giulio

Richard T. Di Giulio

Research Professor of Environmental Toxicology in the Division of Environmental Science and Policy

Dr. Di Giulio serves as Director of Duke University's Integrated Toxicology Program and the Superfund Basic Research Center.

Dr. Di Giulio's research is concerned with basic studies of mechanisms of contaminant metabolism, adaptation and toxicity, and with the development of mechanistically-based indices of exposure and toxicity that can be employed in biomonitoring. The long term goals of this research are to bridge the gap between mechanistic toxicological research and the development of useful tools for environmental assessment, and to elucidate linkages between human and ecosystem health. The bulk of Dr. Di Giulio's work employs a comparative approach with aquatic animals, particularly fishes, as models. Of particular concern are mechanisms of oxidative metabolism of aromatic hydrocarbons, mechanisms of free radical production and antioxidant defense, and mechanisms of chemical carcinogenesis, developmental perturbations and adaptations to contaminated environments by fishes.

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