USGS Washington Water Science Center
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YA00FCG - USGS Pilot Study to Assess Ecosystem Effects of Increased Coal Transport Across the Northwest Region
Federal and state natural resource managers and Northwest Indians are concerned with the potential impacts from unintentional release of coal dust from train cars during transport through the Northwest. Plans for new coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon will substantially increase rail traffic through the Northwest and the potential release of coal dust to the environment. To date, very little scientific data exists that is suitable to address these concerns. There exists a strong desire and need for science to better understand and determine if transporting coal can have any measureable environmental impacts. Multiple USGS science centers are collaborating on a pilot that leverages the Survey's chemical, hydrological, and biological expertise to conduct reconnaissance-level sampling and analysis of mercury (Hg) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) levels in air, water, sediment, and biota at sites of interest near rail lines.
The major objectives of the pilot, titled USGS Pilot Study to Assess Ecosystem Effects of Increased Coal Transport Across the Northwest Region, is to evaluate baseline Hg and PAH levels in multiple environmental media (air, water, sediment, bioindicators), and to determine whether those levels are associated with current coal train traffic. Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge and Horsethief Lake, both in the Columbia River Gorge, have been identified as the initial pilot sites. The study design examines the gradient of concentrations along transects perpendicular to rail lines to assess the linkage between coal transport in the Columbia River Gorge and dispersal of coal dust-associated contaminants in sensitive refuge habitats. The hypothesis is that if coal transport cars are vectors of Hg and PAH contamination, then there should be a measurable decline in the concentration of Hg and PAHs in environmental media with increasing distance from the tracks due to settling of coal particles.
The pilot study assesses the levels of Hg and PAHs in the air, water, and sediment at a minimum of three sites per transect. In addition, we will determine whether contaminants bioaccumulate in sentinel organisms, including: 1) aquatic invertebrates (e.g., dragonfly larvae); 2) small forage fish (e.g., threespine stickleback); and 3) juvenile salmonids. The sampling and analysis of biosentinels will be carried out in collaboration with colleagues at NOAA Fisheries. Using several tools, the study will also apportion, to the extent possible, sources of Hg and PAHs between coal dust, diesel combustion, and other sources. In collaboration with the Wisconsin Water Science Center, we will investigate Hg sources through isotope fractionation using a state-of-the-art multicollector instrument, one of only two in the Nation. We will also use PAH forensic ratios previously developed to assign combustion versus petrogenic sources, and to distinguish between coal and other PAH sources, as well as between burnt and unburned coal.
This study will evaluate some of the risks to Indian trust resources associated with coal transport. If coal transport continues to grow in the Region, this study will provide critical baseline data necessary in order to determine whether the expanded transport results in increased contaminant distribution and exposure. If this study is not conducted, and coal transport continues to grow, we will be unable to determine whether and to what extent coal transport results in environmental contamination and risk to wildlife, fishes, and Indian trust resources.