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Spatial distribution of mercury and other trace elements in recent lake sediments from central Alberta, Canada: An assessment of the regional impact of coal-fired power plants

International Journal of Coal Geology
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/j.coal.2010.01.010
  • Mercury
  • Flux Rate
  • Lake Sediments
  • Coal-Fired Power Plant
  • Alberta
  • Wabamun
  • Ecology
  • Geography
  • Political Science


Abstract These have been growing concerns over the environmental impacts of the coal-fired power plants in the western Canadian province of Alberta, which collectively comprise one of the largest point sources of Hg and other trace elements nationally. The overall cumulative impact of the power plants since the beginning of their activities several decades ago has been a critical question for industry, government agencies, and the research community. This paper aims to delineate the cumulative geographic extent of impact by investigating the spatial distribution of mercury and other trace elements of environmental concern in nine freshwater lakes, which cover the large area surrounding the coal-fired power plants in central Alberta, Canada. 210-Lead dating was used in conjunction with physical evidence of deposited fly ash to determine the sediments' age and hence the depths corresponding to the onset of coal-fired power generation in 1956. Total mean concentrations and fluxes of elements of environmental concern with integrated values since 1956 were then determined. The concentration values do not reflect the catastrophic oil spill at Lake Wabamun in 2005. The post-1956 flux rates of As, Cd, Co, Cr, Cu, Hg, Mo, Ni, Pb, Sb, V, W, and Zn were generally highest in sediment cores obtained from two lakes adjacent to power plants. However, the variable prevailing wind directions played an important role in determining the aerial distribution of Hg and other trace elements to the southeast and to the west of the power plants. Post-1956 fluxes of most elements declined downwind (westward), consistent with strong easterly winds transporting metal pollution further to the west of the power plants. However, spatial interpolation of the data suggested a major southern extension to the area of maximum metal deposition, which has not been sampled by this or previous studies in the region. An atmospheric model estimate of total Hg flux in 2007 near the Genesee power plant was substantially lower than indicated by the most impacted lake sediments, which have integrated Hg fluxes since 1956. The most likely explanations for the model-sediment difference are either that a sharp spatial gradient of deposition exists in the region, and/or recent technology improvements by the power plants have substantially reduced Hg emissions.

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