Biogeochemical variability of plants at native and altered sites, San Juan Basin, New Mexico

Professional Paper 1134-D




The San Juan Basin is becoming a major energy resource region. The anticipated increase in strip mining for coal can be expected to alter the geochemical and biogeochemical environment. because such activities destroy the native vegetation communities, rearrange the rock strata, and disrupt natural soil development. This study investigated the variability in the biogeochemistry of native plant species at both undisturbed and altered sites and assessed the importance of the observed differences. Three studies are involved in this investigation: Study 1, the biogeochemical variability of native species found at sites throughout that part of the basin underlain by economically recoverable coal; Study 2, the biogeochemical variability of native species growing on soils considered favorable for use in the topsoiling of spoil areas; and Study 3, the biogeochemical variability of native species on rehabilitated sites at the San Juan coal mine. Summary statistics for concentrations of 35 elements (and ash yield) are reported in Study 1 for galleta grass, broom snakeweed, and fourwing saltbush. The concentrations of manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and uranium (and possibly iron and selenium) in galleta show regional patterns, with the highest values generally found in the south-central region and western edge of the study area. Differences in the concentration of elements between species was generally subtle (less than a factor of two) except for the following: ash yield of saltbush was two times that of the other plants; boron in snakeweed and saltbush was four times greater than in galleta; iron in galleta was two times greater than in saltbush; and, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and sulfur were generally highest in saltbush. Summary statistics (including the 95-percent expected range) for concentrations of 35 elements (and ash yield) are reported from Study 2 for galleta and broom snakeweed growing on the Sheppard, Shiprock, and Doak soil association. Significant regional (greater than 10 km) variation for aluminum, iron, sulfur, vanadium, and zirconium in galleta are reported; however, for most elements, a significant proportion of the variation in the data was measured locally (less than 0.1 km). This variation indicates that samples of galleta and snakeweed taken more than 10 km apart vary, in their element composition, little more than plants sampled as close together as 0.1 km. The concentrations of 35 elements (and ash yield) in alkali sacaton and fourwing saltbush, which were collected on a rehabilitation plot at the San Juan mine (Study 3), are compared with those of control samples of similar material from native sites from throughout the ,an Juan Basin. Concentrations of aluminum, arsenic, boron, cobalt, copper, fluorine, iron, lead, manganese, sodium, and uranium in samples of saltbush growing over spoil generally exceed the levels of these elements in control samples. For many elements, concentrations in mine samples are from two to five times higher 1 han concentrations in the control samples. Sodium concentrations i saltbush, however, were 100 times higher in mine samples than in control samples. This high concentration reflects a corresponding : OO-fold increase in the extractable sodium levels in spoil material s compared to C-horizon control samples. Sampled plants from the l1ine area, spaced relatively close together (5 m (meters) or less), vary greatly in their element compositions, apparently in response 1 J the heterogenous composition and element availability of the l1ine soils. Topsoiling to a depth of 20 cm (centimeters) does little to meliorate the uptake of elements from spoil by saltbush.

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Biogeochemical variability of plants at native and altered sites, San Juan Basin, New Mexico
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Professional Paper
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26 p.