Aliphatic petroleum and biogenic hydrocarbons entering Narragansett Bay from tributaries under dry weather conditions

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The temporal variability of hydrocarbon inputs from rivers discharging into Narragansett Bay under dry weather conditions, as well as the elucidation of the types and sources of hydrocarbons found in urban rivers, has been investigated. The rivers studied, the Blackstone, the Pawtuxet, the Moshassuck, and the Woonasquatucket, constitute the majority of river flow to the estuary. The unfiltered river water samples were extracted and analyzed for total aliphatic hydrocarbons, including natural and petroleum-derived species. The results of the year-long study revealed consistent oil pollution in all of the rivers sampled. Crankcase oil was ubiquitous, but the presence as well of fuel oils and, particularly in the Moshassuck River, gasoline (or kerosene), demonstrate that these rivers are subject to considerable oil pollution stress. The average concentration of hydrocarbons was ≃37 μg l-1 which, according to some toxicologists, indicates that sensitive organisms may be under stress. In addition, most samples showed evidence of small amounts of terrigenous plant wax hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbon concentrations are comparable to those in other urban rivers but are higher than in rivers from rural areas; moreover, they did not vary in any systematic way with season. The mass transport of hydrocarbons in each of the rivers generally mimicked trends in river discharge, thereby emitting the lowest mass to the estuary in the summer and increasing throughout the remainder of the year. Moreover, due primarily to relative discharge differences, the Blackstone and Pawtuxet rivers constitute 90% of the total calculated flux of hydrocarbons from all four rivers. By combining the results from this investigation with those from previous studies, it was possible to obtain an estimate of the total annual inputs of these contaminants to Narragansett Bay. Total annual loads from rivers and wastewater treatment facilities were approximately 240 mt. When sources such as wet weather inputs were included, the total increased to 420 mt yr-1. This value represents direct current inputs to the system and is considerably lower than previously published estimates. The current direct input estimate, while indicative of an improving situation, differs from previous estimates in that the latter were based upon calculations that approximated the long-term loadings from the watersheds, most of which are likely accumulating above the fall-lines of rivers throughout the watershed. Nevertheless, the current loadings represent a significant chronic flux of hydrocarbons to Narragansett Bay. For example, this estimate indicates that an amount equal to approximately 43% of the oil discharged into Narragansett Bay from the recent World Prodigy oil spill enters the estuary from chronic sources every year.

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