• Sediments;
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons;
  • Oil seeps;
  • Oil spill;
  • Exxon Valdez


A natural regional petroleum hydrocarbon background has been identified in the subtidal sediments of Prince William Sound that is readily distinguished from Exxon Valdez spill oil by chemical fingerprinting methods. This hydrocarbon background is derived from natural petroleum seeps in the eastern Gulf of Alaska. The Alaska Coastal Current carries fine-grained sediments and associated hydrocarbons from seep areas to the east into Prince William Sound, where they are deposited on the seafloor. The analysis of age-dated sediment cores indicates that this process has been going on for the past 160 years, and probably for many thousands of years. In addition, results of a stratified random study of nearshore subtidal sediments conducted in 1990 show that this is a general phenomenon throughout the sound and is significant even in shallow water (3 to 30 m). For example, oleanane, a saturate petroleum biomarker found in Prince William Sound prespill background petroleum and seep sources but not in Exxon Valdez petroleum, is present in subtidal sediment samples from locations throughout the sound. This supports the conclusion that seep areas to the east are major sediment sources for the sound. Moreover, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon mixing model calculations show that, although Exxon Valdez spill-oil residues are present in nearshore subtidal sediments, they generally form a small increment on the natural background. The recognition of preexisting natural and anthropogenic hydrocarbon sources in a spill area is a fundamentally important component of any natural resource damage assessment.