The presence, distribution, and concentration of trace metals in the Potomac River near a coal-burning repository

By Elizabeth Tyler

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Tyler Frankel and Dr. Ben Kisila


The Chesapeake Bay watershed contains several coal-burning power stations located along its waterways. Coal ash, one of the largest forms of industrial waste, is primarily produced by coal burning power stations and held in coal ash repositories. Coal ash is also known to be heavily enriched with trace metals and these contaminants are then able to enter surrounding aquatic environments. Few studies have examined trace metal contamination within the Potomac-Shenandoah watershed stemming from these repositories. Thus, the goal of this study was to assess the spatial and temporal distribution of trace metals in sediments and surface waters adjacent to the Possum Point power station (Quantico, VA). Water and sediment samples (grab and core) were collected from several sites upstream, midstream, and downstream from the station. Trace metals from each sample were extracted and analyzed using ICP-OES (inductively coupled plasma-optical emission spectroscopy) for the presence and concentration of Al, As, B, Cd, Ca, Cr, Cu, Fe, Pb, Mg, Mn, Se, and Zn. Cores were sectioned at 2-centimeter intervals and sediment chronology established using fallout isotope-based dating. While this study is still ongoing, we have found elevated concentrations of these metals midstream and downstream from the power station. Based on chronological data, we also expect to observe enriched trace metal deposits that occur after the coal ash repositories were created. This study will provide vital information regarding the prospective impacts of coal-burning repositories on the release and mobilization of trace metal contaminants within aquatic ecosystems in the Chesapeake Bay region.


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