Toxicity of sediments from around a North Sea oil platform: are metals or hydrocarbons responsible for ecological impacts?

Alastair Grant, Andrew D. Briggs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Citations (Scopus)


Discharges of contaminated drill cuttings have caused appreciable ecological change of the benthos adjacent to many oil and gas platforms in the North Sea. Many platforms have large piles of cuttings lying beneath them and these probably present the greatest potential hazard to the environment during platform decommissioning and removal. There is, however, a lack of consensus on which aspects of drill cuttings are responsible for the adverse ecological effects. This hinders risk assessment of management options. Here we report data on the toxicity of sediments from around the North West Hutton platform to the amphipod Corophium volutator, the polychaeteArenicola marina and the Microtox® acute test system. Sediment was acutely toxic to Corophium out as far as 600 m from the platform. Sediment from 100 m from the platform remained acutely toxic to Corophium when 3% contaminated sediment was mixed with clean sediment. A 10% dilution of this sediment also inhibited Arenicola feeding almost completely. Sediment elutriates did not inhibit Microtox light output, but organics extracted by dichloromethane were very toxic. Fifteen minute EC50 values were as low as 0.25 mg ml-1 and were strongly correlated with hydrocarbon concentrations. Metal concentrations in whole sediments were correlated with their toxicity to Corophium but the relationship was much weaker when data on dilutions were included. Except at sites immediately adjacent to the platform, metal concentrations were well below ERL values from the literature, so were too low to explain sediment toxicity. Toxicity of sediments to Corophium was closely correlated with their hydrocarbon content, even when tests on dilutions were included in the analysis. We conclude that hydrocarbons are the most significant cause of toxicity in these sediments contaminated with oil based drill cuttings and that polar organics, sulphide, ammonia and other water soluble substances are of much lower significance. Applying OSPAR guidelines to our data on the toxicity of cuttings pile material to Corophium data would give a maximum allowable concentration of 0.03% in clean sediments. The Microtox data indicate that sediments from deeper in the pile would require an even greater dilution than this.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)95-116
Number of pages22
JournalMarine Environmental Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2002

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