Relating Injury to the Forest Ecosystem Near Palmerton, PA, to Zinc Contamination From Smelting

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Abstract

The forest on Blue Mountain, near Lehigh Gap, has been injured by emissions from two historical zinc (Zn) smelters in Palmerton, PA, located at the northern base of the mountain. The uppermost mineral soil and lower litter from sites along a transect, just south of the ridgetop, contained from 64 to 4400 mg/kg Zn. We measured forest metrics at 15 sampling sites to ascertain how forest structure, species composition and regeneration are related to soil concentrations of Zn, the probable principal cause of the injury. Understanding how ecotoxicological injury is related to soil Zn concentrations helps us quantify the extent of injury to the ecosystem on Blue Mountain as well as to generalize to other sites. The sum of canopy closure and shrub cover, suggested as a broadly inclusive measure of forest structure, was decreased to half at approximately 2060 mg/kg Zn (102 mg/kg Sr(N03)2-extractable Zn). Tree-seedling density was decreased by 80% (from 10.5/m2 to 2.1/m2) at a much lower concentration: 1080 mg/kg Zn (59 mg/kg Sr(N03)2-extractable Zn). Changes in species composition and richness were not as useful for quantifying injury to the forest. Phytotoxicity, desiccation from exposure, and a gypsy moth infestation combined to form a barren area on the ridgetop. Liming the strongly acid Hazleton soils at the sites would partially ameliorate the observed phytotoxicity and should be considered in planning restoration.