U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
EPA Science Advisory Board
Background Information


Document NameA retrospective analysis of trace metals, C, N and diatom remnants in sediments from the Mississippi River delta shelf.
Document AuthorTurner, R.E.
Milan, C.S.
Rabalais, N.N.
Short DescriptionMarine Pollution Bulletin 49:548-556.
CategorySubgroup 1: Characterization of the Cause(s) of Hypoxia
Publication Year2004
Text:

Abstract: The development of oil and gas recovery offshore of the Mississippi River delta began in shallow water in the 1950s, expanded into deeper waters, and peaked in the 1990s. This area of the outer continental shelf (OCS) is the historical and present location of >90% of all US OCS oil and gas production and reserves. The juxtaposition of its 4000 producing platforms, recovering $10 billion yr(-1) of oil, gas and produced water in the same area where about 28% of the US fisheries catch (by weight) is made and near 40% of the US coastal wetlands, makes this an area worth monitoring for regional pollutant loading. This loading may come from several sources, including sources related to OCS development, but also from the Mississippi River watershed. In this context, any contaminant loading on this shelf may be neither detectable nor significant against a background of climatic or biological variability. We examined the sedimentary record for indicators of industrial by products from OCS oil and gas development and of industrial products entering via the Mississippi River, primarily using vanadium (V) and barium (Ba) concentrations normalized for aluminum (M). Barium is primarily used in drilling muds in the form of barite, whereas V is an important strengthening component of metal alloys, including steel. The fluctuations in the accumulation of Ba, but not V, were coincidental with the presumed use of barite. The fluctuations in V concentration in the sediments were coincidental with the national consumption of V. Copper (Cu), cadmium (Cd) and zinc (Zn) concentrations in sediments fluctuate coincidentally with V, not Ba, thus indicating that the dominant source of these trace metals in offshore sediments were derived from riverine sources, and were not primarily from in situ industrial processes releasing them on the shelf. This is not to suggest that local site-specific contamination is not a significant management or health concern. The low oxygen (hypoxia; less than or equal to2 mg l(-1)) zone that consistently covers much of this continental shelf's bottom layer in summer is attributed to nitrate loading from the Mississippi River. Increased nitrogen loading from river to shelf stimulates diatom production whose loading to the bottom layer and subsequent metabolism results in oxygen being depleted faster than it is replaced. In the last two decades there has been an increased accumulation of organic matter in sediments near the mouth of the Mississippi River. This coupling between river water, surface water and bottom water has recently expanded westward of the Atchafalaya River delta towards the Texas coast. The accumulation of biogenic silica (BSi) and carbon in dated sediments is coincidental with variations in riverine nitrate flux, but not with either V or Ba accumulation rates. These analyses indicate that both OCS development and riverine sources exert strong influences on the sediment constituents offshore, and that these influences may be independent of one another.