Microbial Activity in Anthracite Contaminated Soils
During the summer of 2021, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Alain Plante in his lab researching soil science and biogeochemistry. In this project, we focused on measuring the microbial activity in anthracite contaminated soils from eastern Pennsylvania.
In the past couple centuries, anthracite from eastern Pennsylvania has been mined extensively and used as a primary energy source in the state. The extraction and cleaning process associated with this produces fine waste products, which were often haphazardly discarded into piles and local waterways, leading to infiltration into and contamination of local ecosystems. This has led to the contamination of alluvial soils in the Schuylkill and Lehigh river valleys. Consequently, this contamination may alter carbon flux in affected soils, impacting the global carbon cycle. Currently, the effect that this anthracite contamination has had on carbon storage and the rate of decomposition of organic matter in the soils is unknown, creating the need for better understanding of the cycling of organic matter in these soils.
Quantifying and modeling the mechanisms controlling organic matter decomposition in soil on local to global scales is one of the primary challenges in the field of soil science. One way to obtain quantitative data representing this characteristic of soil is by measuring the rates at which carbon dioxide is respired from the soils, acting as a proxy for soil microbial activity. In this project, samples were collected near Royersford, Pennsylvania, from four sites with different levels of anthracite contamination in a Schuylkill River floodplain. We aimed to quantify the microbial activity by performing a lab incubation and measuring the soil’s respiration rates relative to soil sample mass and carbon mass. However, this is only one component of a larger set of data necessary for accurately representing these mechanisms, and further investigation is needed in order to better understand the role of anthracite contamination in microbial activity and organic matter decomposition.