Land Use Impacts on Heavy Metal Accumulation in Vegetation

Hello! My name is Sharon Hartzell, and I am a Chemistry and Environmental Science major at William & Mary. My research project, Land Use Impacts on Heavy Metal Accumulation in Vegetation, will investigate the impact of dust from coal-bearing trains that travel through Williamsburg on vegetation near to the tracks. BNSF Railway is one company that has extensively investigated this loss, as coal dust can compromise the integrity of train track structures.The company has estimated that between 500 pounds and a ton of coal dust can escape from a single car loaded with coal.My project is concerned with the ecosystem impacts of coal dust lost from trains, and will investigate the levels of common metals enriched in coal that may accumulate in vegetation along railroad tracks. My project will compare samples of vegetation along train tracks to samples gathered from elsewhere in the College Creek watershed, and use chemical techniques to analyze the levels of metals enriched in coal that accumulate in this vegetation. This project will assess the impact that land use, particularly for coal-carrying railroad tracks, has on vegetation in ecosystems.

Coal remains a major source of energy in our state and in our country, and the coal cycle has a tremendous impact on the environment, from mining to combustion. This research will investigate another part of the coal cycle – the transport of coal on railways. Coal dust contains a number of metals that can be detrimental to the health of people and ecosystems, by impacting air and water quality and the health of ecosystems. While my project will study coal dust in forest vegetation, the results of my project will be relevant to anyone who resides along train tracks that carry coal, or who obtains agricultural products from farmland adjacent to these tracks. The accumulation of coal dust along railroad tracks has important implications for the ecosystem health and air quality of these areas.

My research will take place at William & Mary, and I will be sampling areas along railroad tracks in the vicinity of the College, as well as taking control samples from other areas in the College Creek watershed. I will obtain samples from low-hanging vegetation over the railroad tracks, and obtain control samples from the same species of vegetation elsewhere in the College Creek watershed.  Since vegetation does not typically contain metals that are enriched in coal, these samples will provide a baseline for measuring contamination in vegetation adjacent to train tracks.

As a chemistry and environmental science major, I am excited to conduct a project that bridges my two academic disciplines, and applies my theoretical understanding of environmental issues to a practical project. In this project, I will be performing chemical analyses of metals in vegetation, as well as gaining experience in environmental field research. I look forward to the opportunity to investigate chemistry problems in the field as well as in the lab, where most of my previous research experiences have taken place. I plan to pursue research related to environmental contamination in graduate school, would like to explore this type of research in my remaining time at William & Mary. I am excited by the opportunity to conduct research here in Williamsburg, and investigate a problem that directly impacts my community.



1 BNSF Railway (2012). Coal dust frequently asked questions. Retrieved from http://www.bnsf.com/customers/what-can-i-ship/coal/coal-dust.html

2 Hocutt, C.H. (2011). Comments on Public Notice POA-2007-1586: The proposed Port Mackenzie Railroad extension, Knik Arm, Upper Cook Inlet, Alaska, with emphasis on Fisheries and Cook Inlet Beluga Whale. On behalf of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. Retrieved from http://www.stb.dot.gov/filings/all.nsf/6084f194b67ca1c4852567d9005751dc/ebbacb6a8311b2d1852578cc00725697/$FILE/Exhibit%204%20Hocutt%20report.pdf

3 Diehl, S.F., Goldhaber, M.B., Hatch, J.R. (2004). Modes of occurrence of mercury and other trace elements in coals from the warrior field, Black Warrior Basin, Northwestern Alabama. International Journal of Coal Geology 59, pp 193-208. Retrieved from http://blackwarriorriver.org/pdf/Coal%20Geology%20Article.pdf



  1. Dylan Kolhoff says:

    Great topic, Sharon! Does Williamsburg have many coal-bearing trains go through the area? Does it matter to your research how much coal goes through the area, or will you focus exclusively on differences between plants near tracks and those not? Is there the possibility of contamination from other elements carried by the train that could skew results? I look forward to summer adventuring and researching when we are both there later this summer!