Beach geomorphic factors for the persistence of subsurface oil from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska

Yuqiang Xia, Michel C. Boufadel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill persists in some of the Prince William Sound (Alaska) beaches and continues to be a potential threat to the fauna. This paper reports a field investigation during the summer of 2008 of groundwater flow and solute transport in a tidal gravel beach in Smith Island, Prince William Sound. The beach contains oil on one side, the left side (facing landward). Field measurements of water table, salinity, and tracer (lithium) concentration were obtained for an approximate duration of 64 h for two transects, the oiled transect and a clean transect (the right transect). It was found that the hydraulic conductivity and the fresh groundwater recharge into the two transects were similar. It was also found that the beach slope of the mid to high tidal zone along the oiled (left) transect was ~7.4% which is considerably smaller than that of the clean (right) transect (~11.8%). This suggests a higher flushing/replenishing of the right transect with nutrients and/or oxygen, which would have enhanced biodegradation of oil on the right transect if that oil was not washed by waves. We also found that the degree of oiling at each location was inversely dependent on the armoring of the beach surface with clasts and boulders. The applied tracer concentration at the left transect was less than 2% of the source or close to the background level at all locations except a seaward well closest to the applied location, indicating that the tracer applied was diluted or washed out from the beach during the application. Thus, in situations where oil biodegradation is limited by the availability of nutrients and/or dissolved oxygen, applying the chemicals on the beach surface would most likely not enhance oil biodegradation as the applied chemicals would be greatly diluted prior to reaching the oil. Thus, deep injection of nutrients and/or dissolved oxygen is probably the only option for enhancing oil biodegradation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5-21
Number of pages17
JournalEnvironmental Monitoring and Assessment
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Dec 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Environmental Science
  • Pollution
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


  • Environmental pollution
  • Exxon Valdez oil spill
  • Field measurements
  • Oil persistence
  • Tidal gravel beach
  • Tracer study


Dive into the research topics of 'Beach geomorphic factors for the persistence of subsurface oil from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this