Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2015NC193B

Coal ash constituents at the base of aquatic food webs: Processes affecting bioaccumulation and trophic transfer of arsenic

Institute: North Carolina
Year Established: 2015 Start Date: 2015-03-01 End Date: 2016-02-28
Total Federal Funds: $21,192 Total Non-Federal Funds: $64,913

Principal Investigators: David Buchwalter, Dean Hesterberg

Abstract: The combustion of coal to meet demands for energy produces byproducts (“ash”) containing trace elements known to be toxic to fish, wildlife, and people. North Carolina ranks ninth among states in the annual generation of coal-derived ash. The recent spill of 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River highlights the need to understand both the immediate and long-term impacts of trace element inputs at the base of aquatic food webs, which controls bioaccumulation in fish and higher organisms. The storage of another 102 million tons of ash in 33 basins throughout North Carolina is also of concern with regard to past and future releases of potentially toxic trace elements into ground and surface water resources. This project focuses on arsenic – one of the primary elements of concern related to coal ash. Arsenic is challenging because it exists in many forms that vary tremendously in their toxicity and bioavailability. As such, measurements of total arsenic in environmental media or biological tissues do not provide sufficient information to assess potential risk. Our research focuses on biological processes that play primary roles in determining the forms of arsenic present in the tissues of aquatic organisms. This project combines bioaccumulation and trophic transfer studies using radiotracers with detailed studies of arsenic speciation using X-ray Absorption Near Edge Structure (XANES) spectroscopy. This research spans different trophic levels (periphyton, invertebrates and fish) to explicitly assist in the interpretation of field monitoring efforts of the Dan River coal ash spill site.