The two zinc smelters at Palmerton, PA emitted huge amounts of contaminants ( 260,000 t of Zn, 3,300 t of Cd, 6,800 t of Pb) to the air and severely damaged the forest on Blue Mountain. The high Zn concentrations in soil killed tree seedlings by inhibiting root elongation. The result was a forest with too few young trees. When natural stresses such as fire challenged the forest, the forest failed to regenerate, and the exposed soil eroded down the steep slopes. Tree species that could sprout were favored over those that developed from seeds. As a result of high zinc concentrations, the lichen and moss communities were depauperate for at least 20 km along Blue Mountain. The denuded areas are in the process of being reclaimed with the addition of a mixture of fly ash and sewage sludge, which is seeded with grasses tolerant to the harsh conditions. In preliminary experiments, the fly ash and sewage sludge mixture was stable, despite the steepness of the slopes of the reclaimed sites on Blue Mountain. Zinc emissions reduced the decomposition rate of plant material on Blue Mountain. The partially decomposed litter, in particular, accumulated on the surface of the mineral soil. The populations of both microorganisms and arthropods were greatly reduced in soils near the smelters. Samples of litter collected from sites spanning 30 km were toxic to woodlice, and Zn was shown to be the toxic factor. A white-tailed deer examined had a very high renal Zn concentration and an articular lesion in one of its hind legs that closely resembled the lesions reported in Zn-poisoned horses. Zinc concentrations were regulated in wildlife tissues and were not reliable indicators of exposure, except in extreme cases. Two songbirds, a shrew, and several rabbits contained Pb concentrations that were suggested to be toxic. Shrews and ground-feeding songbirds accumulated relatively high concentrations of Pb. Exposure to Pb seemed to be related to the amount of soil that an animal ingests. Some white-tailed deer and cottontails had renal Cd concentrations near 600 ppm w.w., which is associated with renal damage in other mammals. The accumulation of Cd was greatest in wildlife that lived longest. The destruction of the habitat for wildlife on Blue Mountain decreased wildlife populations. Populations of insectivorous birds, however, were depressed well beyond the area of obvious damage to the forest. Forest-floor salamanders were completely absent from study sites spanning 18 km along Blue Mountain. Actual reductions in wildlife populations were much greater than would have been predicted from habitat suitability models alone.
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Ecotoxicological damage from zinc smelting at Palmerton, Pennsylvania