Municipal wastes discharged through deepwater submarine outfalls since 1937 have contaminated sediments of the Palos Verdes Shelf. A site approximately 6-8 km downcurrent from the outfall system was chosen for a study of the diagenetic fate of organic contaminants in the waste-impacted sediments. Concentrations of three classes of hydrophobic organic contaminants (DDT + metabolites, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and the long-chain alkylbenzenes) were determined in sediment cores collected at the study site in 1981 and 1992. Differences between the composition of effluent from the major source of DDT (Montrose Chemical) and that found in sediments suggests that parent DDT was transformed by hydrolytic dehydrochlorination during the earliest stages of diagenesis. As a result, p,p'-DDE is the dominant DDT metabolite found in shelf sediments, comprising 60-70% of ??DDT. The p,p-DDE/p,p'-DDMU concentration ratio decreases with increasing sub-bottom depth in sediment cores, indicating that reductive dechlorination of p,p'-DDE is occurring. Approximately 9-23% of the DDE inventory in the sediments may have been converted to DDMU since DDT discharges began ca. 1953. At most, this is less than half of the decline in p,p'-DDE inventory that has been observed at the study site for the period 1981-1995. Most of the observed decrease is attributable to remobilization by processes such as sediment mixing coupled to resuspension, contaminant desorption, and current advection. Existing field data suggest that the in situ rate of DDE transformation is 102-103 times slower than rates determined in recent laboratory microcosm experiments (Quensen, J.F., Mueller, S.A., Jain, M.K., Tiedje, J.M., 1998. Reductive dechlorination of DDE to DDMU in marine sediment microcosms. Science, 280, 722-724.). This explains why the DDT composition (i.e. o,p'-, p,p'-isomers of DDE, DDD, DDT) of sediments from this site have not changed significantly since at least 1972. Congener-specific PCB compositions in shelf sediments are highly uniform and show no evidence of diagenetic transformation. Apparently, the agents/factors responsible for reductive dechlorination of DDE are not also effecting alteration of the PCBs. Two types of long-chain alkylbenzenes were found in the contaminated sediments. Comparison of chain length and isomer distributions of the linear alkylbenzenes in wastewater effluent and surficial sediment samples indicate that these compounds undergo biodegradation during sedimentation. Further degradation of the linear alkylbenzenes occurs after burial despite relatively invariant isomer compositions. The branched alkylbenzenes are much more persistent than the linear alkylbenzenes, presumably due to extensive branching of the alkyl side chain. Based on these results, p,p'-DDE, PCBs, and selected branched alkylbenzenes are sufficiently persistent for use in molecular stratigraphy. The linear alkylbenzenes may also provide information on depositional processes. However, their application as quantitative molecular tracers should be approached with caution.
Additional publication details
Diagenetic fate of organic contaminants on the Palos Verdes Shelf, California