Persistent Contaminant Threats Following Hurricane Sandy—Establishing Baselines and Assessing Impacts

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Potential long-term contaminant threats resulting from compromised infrastructure, beach erosion, and sediment disturbance were evaluated in the coastal environments of New Jersey and New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Natural-color image of Hurricane Sandy

Natural-color image of Hurricane Sandy captured by the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite 13 at 1:45 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on October 28, 2012. (Courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the United States near Brigantine, New Jersey, on October 29, 2012, and was the second costliest hurricane to strike the United States since 1900. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, it was apparent that long-term contaminant threats were possible due to the extent of the damage and disturbance of the built and natural environment and the proximity of the storm track to population centers and vulnerable ecosystems.

What They Did

Bottom sediment, fish, and mussels were collected in estuaries, bays, and beaches (including stations sampled prior to Hurricane Sandy) and analyzed for a wide array of chemicals to better understand contaminant distribution and potential effects and to establish a post-hurricane baseline. Scientists assessed specific sources of contaminants including domestic wastewater and the potential for mitigation activities to exacerbate contaminant releases in public places. Young-of-the-year bluefish, Menhaden, and mussels were used as biological sentinels to understand contaminant mobilization and uptake. The utility of new remote sensing platforms to identify contaminant plumes in the environment were evaluated. Results of these studies are presented in a special issue of Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Montage of Hurricane Sandy images

Montage of Hurricane Sandy images showing storm tracks, storm waves and surge damage to the barrier island at Mantoloking, New Jersey, dune erosion at Normandy Beach, New Jersey, and sampling of sediments and fish by USGS and Shinnecock Nation scientists after the storm. Graphic design by Denis K. Sun, USGS. Photo credits: Inset photos USGS. Background image is courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Key Outcomes

  • Concentrations of many persistent organic pollutants including polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and organochlorine pesticides in sampled fish and mussels were the same or lower after Hurricane Sandy.
  • Trace element concentrations in bottom sediments increased in Barnegat Bay after Hurricane Sandy up to two orders of magnitude, tripling the number of sites exceeding sediment quality guidance levels.
  • Organic contaminants in whole bluefish differed by estuary; however, concentrations for many contaminants decreased or were similar to those observed prior to the hurricane. The use of sulfide-rich sediments in dune reconstruction has drawbacks (potential to generate acid runoff from dune cores following rainfall, enhanced corrosion of steel bulwarks) and possible benefits (formation of mineral crusts that may enhance structural integrity).
  • The first regional assessment of the occurrence of a broad suite of personal care and domestic use products and hormones in estuarine sediments of New Jersey and New York.

Environmental Health Considerations

The results of these studies provide resource managers and researchers with a comprehensive baseline dataset describing post-Hurricane Sandy contaminant levels throughout coastal New Jersey and New York and insights into the effects of this event on wildlife and the built environment.  As part of the response to Hurricane Sandy that builds on these findings, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has begun the implementation of a strategy to evaluate persistent contaminant hazards resulting from sea level rise and storm-derived disturbances to provide a means to measure coastal resilience. The studies presented in this collection of papers resulted from the collaboration of scientists from the USGS, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several universities. 

This research was funded by the USGS Ecosystems Mission Area’s Environmental Health Program (Contaminant Biology and Toxic Substances Hydrology) and the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 (PL 113-2).