Use of an environmentally realistic laboratory test organism and field bioassessments to determine the potential impacts of active coal mining in the Dumps Creek subwatershed on the Clinch River, Virginia

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Virginia Tech


This research was divided into four objectives for assessing the impacts of coal mining on ecosystem health. The first objective was to provide an ecotoxicological assessment in the upper Clinch River using standard bioassessment techniques. Analysis of sediments and interstitial water (porewater) indicate higher concentrations of trace metals in samples from sites located above both a power plant (CRP) and Dumps Creek mining influences. The furthest sampling site located near Pounding Mill, Virginia (CR-PM) had higher concentrations of aluminum (2,250.9 mg/kg), copper (5.9 mg/kg) and iron (12,322.6 mg/kg) compared to samples collected directly below the Dumps Creek confluence (site CR-2). Similar results were obtained from bioaccumulation in-situ tests with the Asian clam (Corbicula fluminea) in 2009. Aluminum (7.81 mg/kg), Fe (48.25 mg/kg) and Zn (7.69 mg/kg) were accumulated in higher concentrations at CR-PM site than CR-2. However, the site located below the CRP effluent discharges (CR-3L) on the left bank had substantially higher concentrations of Al (14.19 mg/kg), Cu (6.78 mg/kg), Fe (88.78 mg/kg) and Zn (7.75 mg/kg) than both CR-PM and samples collected directly opposite of this site at CR-3R.

To further understand the potential impact active mining on the Clinch River, a more comprehensive ecotoxicological evaluation was conducting in the Dumps Creek subwatershed. Field bioassessments determined that biological impairment occurred directly below a deep mine discharge (CBP 001), which was characterized by a distinct hydrogen sulfide odor. Total abundance and richness of benthic macroinvertebrates decreased to 3.5-20 and 1.25-2.3, respectively at DC-1 Dn. The discharge also caused the proliferation of a sulfur-oxidizing bacterium, Thiothrix nivea. During continuous discharge of the effluent, the bacteria was observed coating all surfaces at DC-1 Dn and may also contribute to an Fe-encrusted biofilm observed on in-situ clams at downstream site, DC-2 Dn. Toxicity tests with mining effluents indicate some potential toxicity of the 001 discharge, but this was variable between test organisms.

Selecting the most appropriate test species for sediment and water column assays has been a primary goal for ecotoxicologists. Standard test organisms and established test guidelines exist, but US EPA recommended species may not be the most sensitive organisms to anthropogenic inputs. Therefore, Chapter Three and Four addressed the use of mayflies in routine laboratory testing. Preliminary results of toxicity tests with the mayfly, Isonychia sp. (Ephemeroptera) suggested that Isonychia were moderately sensitive to NaCl after 96-hr with an average LC50 value of 3.10 g NaCl/L. When exposed to a coal-mine processed effluent, Isonychia generated LC50 values that ranged from 13 to 39% effluent and were more sensitive to the effluent than Ceriodaphnia dubia. Based on results of the feasibility study in presented in Chapter Four, field collected organisms appear to be too unpredictable in test responses and therefore, such tests would be unreliable as stand-alone indicators of effluent toxicity.



Clinch River, unionids, mayflies, toxicity tests, trace metals