Poster Title

Environmental Improvements at Mammoth Cave National Park Following Changes in Southeastern US Coal Burning [Hybrid Poster 1-A]

Grade Level at Time of Presentation

Sophomore

Institution

Western Kentucky University

KY House District #

91

KY Senate District #

21

Department

Geography and Geology

Abstract

Air quality in the southeastern United States has been significantly impacted by burning of fossil fuels, especially coal that is used to power electric generating plants. In particular, the coals of western Kentucky contain relatively high concentrations of sulfur-bearing minerals which when burned and released to the atmosphere can oxidize to form sulfuric acid, or H2SO4. The resulting strong “acid rain” can have impacts on vegetation and water quality. South central Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, established in 1941 to protect the globally significant karst landscape there, has been impacted by such acid rain. Data from the the Houchin Meadow atmospheric monitoring station of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program’s National Trends Network, just outside Mammoth Cave National Park (MCNP), show that from the beginning of the station’s sampling campaign in 2002, rainfall pH averaged 4.7 for the first several years, which is some ten times as acidic as unpolluted rainfall. Beginning in 2005, however, rainfall pH began increasing through time. Rainfall from 2014 to 2016 averaged 5.2, representing a drop in acidity of about 68%. During the same period dissolved SO42- in the rainfall (associated with sulfuric acid) dropped by about 55%. These results clearly show that the increase in rainfall water quality was related to changes in coal burning, as a result of three possible changes: 1) legal requirements driving improvements in pollution control technology, 2) increased use of low-sulfur coals imported from the western US, and more recently 3) replacement of coal as a fuel source by cheaper and cleaner natural gas. Surface and groundwater quality in MCNP show a relatively small impact from these changes, particularly the acidity as water interacting with the limestone that underlies the park, and within which the Park’s caves have formed, is strongly buffered resulting in acid neutralization.

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Environmental Improvements at Mammoth Cave National Park Following Changes in Southeastern US Coal Burning [Hybrid Poster 1-A]

Air quality in the southeastern United States has been significantly impacted by burning of fossil fuels, especially coal that is used to power electric generating plants. In particular, the coals of western Kentucky contain relatively high concentrations of sulfur-bearing minerals which when burned and released to the atmosphere can oxidize to form sulfuric acid, or H2SO4. The resulting strong “acid rain” can have impacts on vegetation and water quality. South central Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, established in 1941 to protect the globally significant karst landscape there, has been impacted by such acid rain. Data from the the Houchin Meadow atmospheric monitoring station of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program’s National Trends Network, just outside Mammoth Cave National Park (MCNP), show that from the beginning of the station’s sampling campaign in 2002, rainfall pH averaged 4.7 for the first several years, which is some ten times as acidic as unpolluted rainfall. Beginning in 2005, however, rainfall pH began increasing through time. Rainfall from 2014 to 2016 averaged 5.2, representing a drop in acidity of about 68%. During the same period dissolved SO42- in the rainfall (associated with sulfuric acid) dropped by about 55%. These results clearly show that the increase in rainfall water quality was related to changes in coal burning, as a result of three possible changes: 1) legal requirements driving improvements in pollution control technology, 2) increased use of low-sulfur coals imported from the western US, and more recently 3) replacement of coal as a fuel source by cheaper and cleaner natural gas. Surface and groundwater quality in MCNP show a relatively small impact from these changes, particularly the acidity as water interacting with the limestone that underlies the park, and within which the Park’s caves have formed, is strongly buffered resulting in acid neutralization.