Microbial community structure and relationship with physicochemical properties of soil stockpiles in selected South African opencast coal mines

At present, there is no comprehensive soil quality assessment practice for soil stockpiles in the South African coal mining industry. Soil microorganisms and enzymes are suitable indicators for soil quality monitoring. Therefore, this study investigated the microbial community and enzyme (beta-glucosidase and urease) activities in soil stockpiles of opencast coal mines in the coal-rich region of South Africa. Soil stockpiles of three opencast coal mines were sampled at depths of 0–20 cm (‘topsoil’) and >20 cm (‘subsoil’) across three seasons. Beta-glucosidase and urease activities were mostly higher in soil stockpiles than in unmined soils and were significantly influenced (P < 0.05) by the interaction of site and seasonal factors. However, analyses of PCR-denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (PCR-DGGE) profiles of partial 16S rRNA gene and internally transcribed spacer 2 (ITS2) sequences revealed higher microbial diversity in unmined (reference) soils compared to soil stockpiles across all seasons. Redundancy analysis further revealed that microbial communities of topsoil were not significantly (P > 0.05) influenced by soil properties, whereas microbial communities of subsoils were significantly (P < 0.05) influenced by pH, organic carbon, total nitrogen and phosphorus contents. Furthermore, operational taxonomic units (OTUs) belonging to genera of known phytobeneficial species such as Azomonas, Aureobasidium, Phialocephala, Phoma and Sordariomycetes were detected in these soils. Overall, results suggest that the microbial community structure and diversity observed in stockpiles is impaired (compared to the unmined site), although variations in the microbial community structure of soil stockpiles across seasons are site-specific. The impaired microbial community of stockpiles may have negative implications on soil biological processes driven by microbes; especially those that are critical for nutrient cycling and ecosystem sustainability. More importantly, such alteration in soil biodiversity may impair post-mining land use capability of stockpile soils.