The Impacts of Acid Mine Drainage on the Black Creek Watershed, Wise County, Virginia

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Virginia Tech

Black Creek is a small watershed located in Wise County, Virginia, west of the town of Norton. At the time of this survey, the watershed encompassed approximately 929 hectares of mine and forest lands with a small recreational area. Black Creek proper is a third-order stream approximately 6.7 km in length from its headwaters to its confluence with the Powell River in Kent Junction. Black Creek and several of the tributaries within the watershed were previously identified as areas impacted by acid mine drainage. The watershed was used in a study to identify sources of acid mine drainage and the best methods for its evaluation.

The acid mine drainage sources were first identified using visual inspection and field chemistry. Additional stream segments were then included in the assessment process using metal (aluminum, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, and zinc) analyses of both overlying water column and sediments.

Using an upstream reach of Black Creek as a reference, short-term toxicity testing was employed, as well as a long-term purge study. The pH at sampling locations ranged from 2.75 to 7.87 SU, and conductivity ranged from 196 μmhos/cm to 2040 μmhos/cm. All metals were elevated when compared to the reference. Water column samples collected from locations with low pH were acutely toxic to Daphnia magna and Pimephales promelas. Mortality was high in the elutriant test at locations where pH was low, conductivity was elevated, metals were high, or a combination of these.

In the initial sediment tests, all sampling locations were significantly different than the reference for survival of Chironomus tentans and reproduction of D. magna. One location was significantly different than the reference for survival of D. magna. In the sediment tests completed after two months, survival of C. tentans was only different from the control in three locations but was significantly different for growth at all locations. Reproduction by D. magna was again significantly less than the reference at all locations. At eight months, only two locations were significant for survival of C. tentans and after 15 months, no significant differences occurred between any stations. The study indicates that stream segments that are severely impaired by acid mine drainage are easy to identify using visual inspection and field water chemistry. Those that are moderately impaired require more investigation and may not be responsive to short-term toxicity tests.

Benthic macroinvertebrates, leaf packs, and periphyton were evaluated in the field. Benthic macroinvertebrate communities and leaf-pack breakdown were evaluated at nine locations, while periphyton was evaluated at the mouth of Black Creek, as well as five sites in the Powell River receiving system. While leaf-pack information and benthic macroinvertebrate samples yielded similar information, benthic sampling was much simpler and less time consuming. Additionally, benthic macroinvertebrate sampling, particularly over several sampling events, was more sensitive at the most severely impacted AMD stations.

The stations were broken down into five different categories in order to better determine which evaluation techniques were most sensitive and cost-effective. The five categories were Non-Impaired, Slightly Impaired, Moderately Impaired, Severely Impaired, and Severely pH impaired. Once the locations were categorized, each method used to evaluate toxicity was examined to determine which methods best identified acid mine drainage impairment in the Black Creek watershed. The methods utilized include the following: basic water chemistry; metals analysis of sediments and water column; acute toxicity testing using both D. magna and P. promelas; short-term elutriant and sediment tests; chronic sediment test using C. tentans and D. magna; a purge study; benthic macroinvertebrate sampling; leaf-pack and algal-tile studies. After evaluating these methods, it was determined that using basic water chemistry and benthic macroinvertebrate sampling were the best methods for evaluating acid mine drainage impairment in this watershed.

The reference station was identified as Non-Impaired. Two stations located in the lower portions of Black Creek (L11 and L1) were also Non-Impaired or only Slightly Impaired with the benthic macroinvertebrate results indicating little impairment. Stations U2, U6, U7, and BBM were also found to be Slightly Impaired. The station on the margin of the wetland, U5, was Moderately Impaired. Two previously identified areas of impairment, U9 and U10, (Cherry et al. 1995) were identified as Severely pH Impaired and Severely Impaired, respectively.

acid mine drainage, benthic macroinvertebrate, sediment toxicity