Data on rock, ground water, vadose water, and vadose gas chemistry were collected for two years after sewage sludge was applied at a reclaimed surface coal mine in Pennsylvania to determine if surface-applied sludge is an effective barrier to oxygen influx, contributes metals and nutrients to ground water, and promotes the acidification of ground water. Acidity, sulfate, and metals concentrations were elevated in the ground water (6- to 21-m depth) from spoil relative to unmined rock because of active oxidation of pyrite and dissolution of aluminosilicate, carbonate, and Mn-Fe-oxide minerals in the spoil. Concentrations of acidity, sulfate, metals (Fe, Mn, Al, Cd, Cu, Cr, Ni, Zn), and nitrate, and abundances of iron-oxidizing bacteria were elevated in the ground water from sludge-treated spoil relative to untreated spoil having a similar mineral composition; however, gaseous and dissolved oxygen concentrations did not differ between the treatments. Abundances of iron-oxidizing bacteria in the ground water samples were positively correlated with concentrations of ammonia, nitrate, acidity, metals, and sulfate. Concentrations of metals in vadose water samples (<5-m depth) from sludge-treated spoil (pH 5.9) were not elevated relative to untreated spoil (pH 4.4). In contrast, concentrations of nitrate were elevated in vadose water samples from sludge-treated spoil, frequently exceeding 10 mg/L. Downgradient decreases in nitrate to less than 3 mg/L and increases in sulfate concentrations in underlying ground water could result from oxidation of pyrite by nitrate. Thus, sewage sludge added to pyritic spoil can increase the growth of iron-oxidizing bacteria, the oxidation of pyrite, and the acidification of ground water. Nevertheless, the overall effects on ground water chemistry from the sludge were small and probably short-lived relative to the effects from mining only.
Additional publication details
Effect of sewage sludge on formation of acidic ground water at a reclaimed coal mine