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Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5228

Organic Contaminants, Trace and Major Elements, and Nutrients in Water and Sediment Sampled in Response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

By Lisa H. Nowell, Amy S. Ludtke, David K. Mueller, and Jonathon C. Scott

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (1.6 MB)Abstract

Beach water and sediment samples were collected along the Gulf of Mexico coast to assess differences in contaminant concentrations before and after landfall of Macondo-1 well oil released into the Gulf of Mexico from the sinking of the British Petroleum Corporation’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. Samples were collected at 70 coastal sites between May 7 and July 7, 2010, to document baseline, or “pre-landfall” conditions. A subset of 48 sites was resampled during October 4 to 14, 2010, after oil had made landfall on the Gulf of Mexico coast, called the “post-landfall” sampling period, to determine if actionable concentrations of oil were present along shorelines.

Few organic contaminants were detected in water; their detection frequencies generally were low and similar in pre-landfall and post-landfall samples. Only one organic contaminant—toluene—had significantly higher concentrations in post-landfall than pre-landfall water samples. No water samples exceeded any human-health benchmarks, and only one post-landfall water sample exceeded an aquatic-life benchmark—the toxic-unit benchmark for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) mixtures. In sediment, concentrations of 3 parent PAHs and 17 alkylated PAH groups were significantly higher in post-landfall samples than pre-landfall samples. One pre-landfall sample from Texas exceeded the sediment toxic-unit benchmark for PAH mixtures; this site was not sampled during the post-landfall period. Empirical upper screening-value benchmarks for PAHs in sediment were exceeded at 37 percent of post-landfall samples and 22 percent of pre-landfall samples, but there was no significant difference in the proportion of samples exceeding benchmarks between paired pre-landfall and post-landfall samples. Seven sites had the largest concentration differences between post-landfall and pre-landfall samples for 15 alkylated PAHs. Five of these seven sites, located in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, had diagnostic geochemical evidence of Macondo-1 oil in post-landfall sediments and tarballs.

For trace and major elements in water, analytical reporting levels for several elements were high and variable. No human-health benchmarks were exceeded, although these were available for only two elements. Aquatic-life benchmarks for trace elements were exceeded in 47 percent of water samples overall. The elements responsible for the most exceedances in post-landfall samples were boron, copper, and manganese. Benchmark exceedances in water could be substantially underestimated because some samples had reporting levels higher than the applicable benchmarks (such as cobalt, copper, lead and zinc) and some elements (such as boron and vanadium) were analyzed in samples from only one sampling period. For trace elements in whole sediment, empirical upper screening-value benchmarks were exceeded in 57 percent of post-landfall samples and 40 percent of pre-landfall samples, but there was no significant difference in the proportion of samples exceeding benchmarks between paired pre-landfall and post-landfall samples. Benchmark exceedance frequencies could be conservatively high because they are based on measurements of total trace-element concentrations in sediment. In the less than 63-micrometer sediment fraction, one or more trace or major elements were anthropogenically enriched relative to national baseline values for U.S. streams for all sediment samples except one. Sixteen percent of sediment samples exceeded upper screening-value benchmarks for, and were enriched in, one or more of the following elements: barium, vanadium, aluminum, manganese, arsenic, chromium, and cobalt. These samples were evenly divided between the sampling periods.

Aquatic-life benchmarks were frequently exceeded along the Gulf of Mexico coast by trace elements in both water and sediment and by PAHs in sediment. For the most part, however, significant differences between pre-landfall and post-landfall samples were limited to concentrations of PAHs in sediment. At five sites along the coast, the higher post-landfall concentrations of PAHs were associated with diagnostic geochemical evidence of Deepwater Horizon Macondo-1 oil.

First posted February 25, 2013

For additional information contact:
Director, California Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
6000 J Street, Placer Hall
Sacramento, California 95819

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Suggested citation:

Nowell, L.H., Ludtke, A.S., Mueller, D.K., and Scott, J.C., 2012, Organic contaminants, trace and major elements, and nutrients in water and sediment sampled in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5228, 96 p, plus appendixes.





Results and Discussion

Summary and Conclusions


References Cited


Appendix 1. Methods, Reporting Levels, and Laboratories Used for Chemical Analysis for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Gulf of Mexico, 2010

Appendix 2. Data Distributions for Contaminants in Water and Sediment Sampled in Response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Sill, 2010

Appendix 3. Benchmark Exceedances for Contaimants in Water and Sediment Sampled in Response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, 2010

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