Impacts to water quality and biota persist in mining-influenced Appalachian streams

Thomas R. Cianciolo, Daniel L. McLaughlin, Carl E. Zipper, Anthony J. Timpano, David J. Soucek, Stephen H. Schoenholtz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Elevated dissolved major ions (salinization) from surface coal mining are a common impact to central Appalachian headwater streams. Salinization is associated with alterations of benthic macroinvertebrate communities, as many organisms are adapted to the naturally dilute streams of the region. These geochemical and biological alterations have been observed in streams decades after mining, but it remains unclear whether and at what rate water quality and aquatic biota recover after mining. To address this issue, we analyzed temporal trends in specific conductance (SC), ion matrix ratios, and benthic macroinvertebrate communities over an eight-year period in 23 headwater streams, including 18 salinized by surface coal mining. We found strong, negative correlations between SC and diversity of benthic macroinvertebrate communities. Temporal trend analysis demonstrated limited recovery of water chemistry to natural background conditions. Five of the 18 mining-influenced streams exhibited declining SC; however, annual rates of decline in these streams ranged from 1.9% to 3.7% of mean annual SC, suggesting long time periods will be required to reach established benchmark values (ca. 25 years) or values observed in our five reference study streams (ca. 40 years). Similarly, there was limited evidence for recovery of macroinvertebrate community metrics, even in the few mining-influenced streams with decreasing SC. These findings indicate that salinization and its biological effects persist, likely for decades, in central Appalachian headwater streams. Our work also highlights the value of long-term monitoring data for assessing recovery potential of salinized freshwaters, as well as the need for improved understanding of water quality and biological recovery processes and time frames.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number137216
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - May 15 2020


  • Benthic macroinvertebrates
  • Coal mining
  • Conductivity
  • Ion matrix
  • Salinization
  • Temporal trend

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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