A Review of distribution and quantity of lingering subsurface oil from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Last modified: 
December 13, 2019 - 9:12pm
Type: Journal Article
Year of publication: 2017
Date published: 07/2017
Authors: Zachary Nixon, Jacqueline Michel
Journal title: Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography
ISSN: 09670645

Remaining lingering subsurface oil residues from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS) are, at present, patchily distributed across the geologically complex and spatially extensive shorelines of Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. We review and synthesize previous literature describing the causal geomorphic and physical mechanisms for persistence of oil in the intertidal subsurface sediments of these areas. We also summarize previous sampling and modeling efforts, and refine previously presented models with additional data to characterize the present-day linear and areal spatial extent, and quantity of lingering subsurface oil. In the weeks after the spill in March of 1989, approximately 17,750 t of oil were stranded along impacted shorelines, and by October of 1992, only ~2% of the mass of spilled oil was estimated to remain in intertidal areas. We estimate that lingering subsurface residues, generally between 5 and 20 cm thick and sequestered below 10–20 cm of clean sediment, are present over 30 ha of intertidal area, along 11.4 km of shoreline, and represent approximately 227 t or 0.6% of the total mass of spilled oil. These residues are typically located in finer-grained sand and gravel sediments, often under an armor of cobble- or boulder-sized clasts, in areas with limited groundwater flow and porosity. Persistence of these residues is correlated with heavy initial oil loading together with localized sheltering from physical disturbance such as wave energy within the beach face. While no longer generally bioavailable and increasingly chemically weathered, present removal rates for these remaining subsurface oil residues have slowed to nearly zero. The only remaining plausible removal mechanisms will operate over time scales of decades.

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