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PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e50549. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0050549. Epub 2012 Nov 27.

Dispersants as used in response to the MC252-spill lead to higher mobility of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in oil-contaminated Gulf of Mexico sand.

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  • 1Department of Earth Sciences, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Abstract

After the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, large volumes of crude oil were washed onto and embedded in the sandy beaches and sublittoral sands of the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Some of this oil was mechanically or chemically dispersed before reaching the shore. With a set of laboratory-column experiments we show that the addition of chemical dispersants (Corexit 9500A) increases the mobility of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in saturated permeable sediments by up to two orders of magnitude. Distribution and concentrations of PAHs, measured in the solid phase and effluent water of the columns using GC/MS, revealed that the mobility of the PAHs depended on their hydrophobicity and was species specific also in the presence of dispersant. Deepest penetration was observed for acenaphthylene and phenanthrene. Flushing of the columns with seawater after percolation of the oiled water resulted in enhanced movement by remobilization of retained PAHs. An in-situ benthic chamber experiment demonstrated that aromatic hydrocarbons are transported into permeable sublittoral sediment, emphasizing the relevance of our laboratory column experiments in natural settings. We conclude that the addition of dispersants permits crude oil components to penetrate faster and deeper into permeable saturated sands, where anaerobic conditions may slow degradation of these compounds, thus extending the persistence of potentially harmful PAHs in the marine environment. Application of dispersants in nearshore oil spills should take into account enhanced penetration depths into saturated sands as this may entail potential threats to the groundwater.

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