Long Island Sound (LIS) is a relatively shallow estuary with a mean depth of 20 m (maximum depth 49 m) and a unique hydrology and history of pollutant loading. Those factors have contributed to a wide variety of contamination problems in its muddy sediments, aquatic life and water column. The LIS sediments are contaminated with a host of legacy and more recently released toxic compounds and elements related to past and present wastewater discharges and runoff. These include non-point and storm water runoff and groundwater discharges, whose character has changed over the years along with the evolution of its watershed and industrial history. Major impacts have resulted from the copious amounts of nutrients discharged into LIS through atmospheric deposition (N), domestic and industrial waste water flows, fertilizer releases, and urban runoff. All these sources and their effects are in essence the result of human presence and activities in the watershed, and the severity of pollutant loading and their impacts generally scales with total population in the watersheds surrounding LIS. Environmental legislation passed since the mid-to late 1900s (e.g., Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act) has had a beneficial effect, however, and contaminant loadings for many toxic organic and inorganic chemicals and nutrients have diminished over the last few decades (O’Shea and Brosnan 2000; Trench, et al, 2012; O’Connor and Lauenstein 2006; USEPA 2007). Major strides have been made in reducing the inflow of nutrients into LIS, but cultural eutrophication is still an ongoing problem and nutrient control efforts will need to continue. Nonetheless, LIS is still a heavily human impacted estuary (an ‘Urban Estuary’, as described for San Francisco Bay by Conomos, 1979), and severe changes in water quality and sediment toxicity as well as ecosystem shifts have been witnessed over the relatively short period since European colonization in the early 1600s (Koppelman et al., 1976).
The main rivers that discharge into LIS are the East River in the west, the Housatonic and Connecticut rivers on the north, and the Thames River at the northeastern end of LIS, with the Quinnipiac and several other smaller rivers also coming in from Connecticut. The East River is a tidal strait that connects LIS with New York Harbor through the heart of the New York City metropolitan region. The Housatonic, Quinnipiac, Connecticut and Thames river basins drain agricultural, urban and industrial lands in a watershed that extends from Connecticut north to Canada. The Sound receives contaminants from many sources within and outside its contributing watershed, including direct discharges from coastal industries, wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), urban runoff, and atmospheric deposition. New England has a long history of industrial activity, with factories that once crowded its riverbanks and shores now having succumbed to economic forces that drove manufacturing overseas. Relict deposits with legacy pollutants in upland sediments persist and combine with modern runoff sources from an increasingly densely populated watershed, and continue to be a source of contaminants for LIS. While toxic exposure from legacy and active sources has diminished over the years as wastewater treatment has improved and industries closed or moved away, pockets of contamination still have consequences for many embayments and coves, particularly near urbanized areas of western LIS.
Loading of nutrients and carbon have been of recent concern in LIS because of the extensive impacts observed since the mid-1980s. Excess nutrients not only create inhospitable conditions for higher forms of aquatic life through reduced oxygen levels and disrupting trophic dynamics, but also by altering the local biogeochemistry. As a result, the release of toxic substances into the water column may be enhanced in hypoxic waters, thus exerting a toxic effect or enhancing incorporation of toxic pollutants into the food we