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Researchers monitor stream algae news

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Algae, those single or multi-cellular photosynthetic organisms frequently seen attached to aquarium walls, are talking to Slippery Rock University researchers, and the green organisms are telling them about the state of recovery in parts of Slippery Rock Creek.

Dean DeNicola, an SRU biology professor and his student researchers, are primarily examining benthic algae, the kind that grows on rocks on the bottom of streams. The streams in their research are in the headwaters of nearby Slippery Rock Creek, and they are contaminated by water coming out of abandoned mines frequently called "acid mine drainage or AMD."

"In streams that receive significant impacts from mining the algae are not very plentiful, which is not good for the environment and aquatic life, since algae is one of the main energy sources at the base of the food chain," he said. "Algae are an excellent indicator of the pH, acid or base, and environmental conditions of the streams. As a result benthic algal communities are used as indicators in streams because they are highly responsive to habitat change, such as disruption of the ecosystem due to acid mine drainage," DeNicola said. In addition, algae require nitrogen and phosphorus as two critical nutrients for their growth, but the mine water reduces those nutrients.

"AMD occurs when minerals associated with coal deposits are exposed to air and water in what are now abandoned mines. This creates a series of chemical reactions that results in mine water discharges that are high in acidity with high concentrations of metals. AMD runoff into streams drastically reduces the abundance and diversity of stream organisms. AMD affects one-third of the stream miles in Pennsylvania, and is the major water quality problem in Appalachian watersheds," he said. Newer laws passed in 1977 prohibit coal operators from allowing such runoff, but for the vast number of long-abandoned mines the laws are of little use.

Amber Lellock, an SRU biology major from Punxsutawney, said, "Working on this research project provided me with an opportunity I never envisioned myself having, and I consider myself quite lucky. I thoroughly enjoyed the fieldwork and first-hand experience. It isn't like being in a classroom with 20 or so students; rather I had the chance to learn new techniques and utilize them almost instantaneously."

"Millions of years ago, when the dinosaurs where here and Pennsylvania was a tropical swamp, coal was formed from the dead plant matter. As long as the minerals in ground containing heavy metals remained in an environment with no oxygen they were not a problem. When the mines were opened to remove the coal, the minerals were exposed to oxygen forming acids and releasing metals to create an ecological problem," he said. "The Slippery Rock Creek Watershed has been severely impacted by AMD for more than a century, predominantly from coal mining activities in a 27-square-mile area at the headwaters of the stream, near Boyers" he said.

The AMD discharges in the headwaters have been inventoried and targeted for restoration by the Slippery Rock Watershed Coalition, whose members represent Slippery Rock University, Pennsylvania state agencies, nonprofit organizations, private environmental consulting firms and the local community. The treatment of the AMD discharges in the headwater area of Slippery Rock Creek uses recent technology that included installation of 12 passive treatment systems.