A new study has identified the specific isotopes of pollutants that leave mountaintop removal sites and enter Appalachian waterways. The new data could help researchers determine how much of a stream’s pollution is due to coal mining.
The study was conducted by researchers at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, and published in peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology. It identified three water contaminants (sulfate, strontium and inorganic carbon) that are often associated with mountaintop removal operations, though they’re also naturally-occurring.
Lead author Avner Vengosh says his team identified three isotopes of the contaminants that uniquely come from mining operations.
“By reviewing very small, small changes in the chemistry of the water, we can quantify this contamination, and we can tell is this indeed coming from mountaintop mining and not from other sources,” he said.
This means the method could be used in the future by regulators to more accurately determine whether pollution is coming from a coal mine, a gas well, or some other place. Vengosh says the technique could also come in handy determining whether industrial operations have contaminated drinking water, as has been alleged in several states.