Nutrient Dynamics in Marsh Sediments Contaminated by an Oil Spill Following a Flood Academic Article uri icon


  • Flood waters during October, 1994, ruptured a group of pipelines that released gasoline, diesel fuel and crude oil into the San Jacinto River near Houston, Texas. This mixture traveled downstream where it ignited inside a flooded house. The resulting fire burned for seven days. A petroleum-contaminated wetland, designated as a research area, received no cleanup during the spill response. Sediment samples collected over a period of one year were analyzed for nutrients and petroleum hydrocarbons. Natural levels of the nutrient analytes were estimated by monitoring the values over a year following the event. Nutrients monitored include ammonium (plus ammonia), nitrate (plus nitrite), available phosphorus, total Kjeldahl nitrogen and total phosphorus in Kjeldahl digest. Available nutrient concentrations were initially high and then declined to presumable background levels of approximately 10 ppm P, 5 ppm N, and 0.5 ppm N for available phosphorus, ammonium, and nitrate, respectively. Average ammonium concentrations were as high as 40 ppm N and average available phosphorus levels were as high as 75 ppm P during December, 1994. Available nutrient levels declined over the period of the study indicating that the system had been enriched. Theories about the source of enrichment include deposition of either nutrient rich sediments from the flood or ashes from the fire. Also, disturbances due to site construction activities involved in building the sampling structures could have contributed to the perturbations observed. During the study, the sum of total petroleum target analytes decreased from approximately 160 ppm to less than 10 ppm. Correlation coefficients of 0.76, 0.75, 0.67, and 0.63 were found between the sum of target analytes and ammonium, available phosphorus, total Kjeldahl nitrogen, and total phosphorus in Kjeldahl digest, respectively. These correlation coefficients suggest interdependency between nutrient levels and degradation of the petroleum. The data suggest that the naturally elevated nutrient levels provided favorable conditions for the degradation of the oil. 1999 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

published proceedings

  • Environmental Technology

author list (cited authors)

  • Harris, B. C., Bonner, J. S., & Autenrieth, R. L.

citation count

  • 14

complete list of authors

  • Harris, BC||Bonner, JS||Autenrieth, RL

publication date

  • August 1999