Sediment toxicity tests were conducted to assess potential effects of contaminants associated with coal mining or natural gas extraction activities in the upper Tennessee River basin and eastern Cumberland River basin in the United States. Test species included two unionid mussels (rainbow mussel, Villosa iris, and wavy-rayed lampmussel, Lampsilis fasciola, 28-d exposures), and the commonly tested amphipod, Hyalella azteca (28-d exposure) and midge, Chironomus dilutus (10-d exposure). Sediments were collected from seven test sites with mussel communities classified as impacted and in proximity to coal mining or gas extraction activities, and from five reference sites with mussel communities classified as not impacted and no or limited coal mining or gas extraction activities. Additional samples were collected from six test sites potentially with high concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and from a test site contaminated by a coal ash spill. Mean survival, length, or biomass of one or more test species was reduced in 10 of 14 test samples (71%) from impacted areas relative to the response of organisms in the five reference samples. A higher proportion of samples was classified as toxic to mussels (63% for rainbow mussels, 50% for wavy-rayed lampmussels) compared with amphipods (38%) or midge (38%). Concentrations of total recoverable metals and total PAHs in sediments did not exceed effects-based probable effect concentrations (PECs). However, the survival, length, or biomasses of the mussels were reduced significantly with increasing PEC quotients for metals and for total PAHs, or with increasing sum equilibrium-partitioning sediment benchmark toxic units for PAHs. The growth of the rainbow mussel also significantly decreased with increasing concentrations of a major anion (chloride) and major cations (calcium and magnesium) in sediment pore water. Results of the present study indicated that (1) the findings from laboratory tests were generally consistent with the field observations of impacts on mussel populations; (2) total recoverable metals, PAHs, or major ions, or all three in sediments might have contributed to the sediment toxicity; (3) the mussels were more sensitive to the contaminants in sediments than the commonly tested amphipod and midge; and (4) a sediment toxicity benchmark of 1.0 based on PECs may not be protective of mussels.
Additional publication details
Toxicity of sediments potentially contaminated by coal mining and natural gas extraction to unionid mussels and commonly tested benthic invertebrates