Application of the paleolimnological method to assess metal contaminant distribution (As, Cu, Pb, Zn) in pulp mill stabilization basin sediments, Nova Scotia, Canada


The paleolimnological method was used to decouple geogenic and anthropogenic metal (loids) contributions in a sediment stabilization basin (Boat Harbour) located in Nova Scotia, Canada. Boat Harbour has been impacted by industrial effluents discharged by a bleached kraft pulp mill (1967 to 2019) and a chlor-alkali plant (1971 to 1992). The former estuary now contains >577,000 m3 of unconsolidated sediment, impacted by inorganic and organic contaminants, including metal[loid]s, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, polychlorinated dibenzofurans. Previous studies indicated significant knowledge gaps in our understanding of the spatial, stratigraphic, and temporal variation of sediment contamination. Twenty-five lakebed sediment gravity cores were obtained between 2016 and 2019 to determine spatiotemporal distribution of sediment As, Cu, Pb, and Zn concentrations which consistently exceeded guidelines for aquatic sediments. Results demonstrate there is no distinct spatial trend in metal concentrations despite point source effluent inputs. High and variable concentrations of Cu and Zn in contaminated sediment likely represent a combination of cation capture by highly organic sediment and influence of pulp mill on lakebed sediment chemistry. Elevated Pb in contaminated sediment is the result of atmospheric deposition from combustion of fossil fuels and bioaccumulation in effluent feedstock. Average sedimentation rate (1 cm every 3 years) is high compared to a nearby freshwater lake and is enhanced by increased nutrient loading and more productive water column conditions associated with effluent introduction. Temporal trends indicate significantly higher concentrations of Zn and Cu in top sediment samples consistent with changes in effluent treatment procedures as well as composition of effluent solids. Comparison of geochemistry of effluent influenced sediment and pre-effluent substate sediment at Boat Harbour to freshwater and marine reference was required to understand the degree to which geogenic and anthropogenic sources of metal(loids) have influenced effluent chemistry. This study demonstrates that undisturbed, time transgressive samples from both impacted sites and reference sites combined with non-destructive, rapid, small sample analytical techniques such as X-ray fluorescence, provide an accurate assessment of sediment metal contaminant distribution, data required to guide remediation and environmental effects monitoring and compliance.

Environmental Science and Pollution Research