In 2008 an impoundment retaining wall failed at the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal burning plant in Kingston, Tennessee, releasing large quantities of coal-fly ash into the Emory River. Following extensive remediation of the spill, we captured (in 2011 and 2012) gravid turtles of multiple species in three rivers (two impacted and one reference) within the vicinity of the spill to determine whether there was evidence of the spill influencing reproduction. There was little evidence that river of origin affected reproductive output, hatching success, hatchling size, or hatchling locomotor performance. Although hatching success and hatchling righting ability of pond sliders, Trachemys scripta, was higher in our reference river than in the Emory or Clinch River, respectively, these differences could not be attributed to differences in individual element concentrations in turtle tissues and effect sizes were relatively small. For example, hatching success was reduced by 11% in the spill zone compared to the reference river, an effect that is unlikely substantial enough to influence local population dynamics in light of turtle life history. Our results suggest that residual contamination that remains in the Emory-Clinch system after its remediation poses low risk of excessive element exposure and limited adverse reproductive effects to freshwater turtles. Future monitoring could reveal whether the observed reduction in hatching success gradually attenuates with time, or whether any long-term effects of chronic exposure to low-level contamination emerge over time.
Steen, D. A., Van Dyke, J. U., Jackson, B. P., & Hopkins, W. A. (2015). Reproduction and hatchling performance in freshwater turtles associated with a remediated coal fly-ash spill. Environmental Research, 138, 38-48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2015.01.024