Mercury methylation beneath an in-situ sediment cap



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The production of methyl mercury, an acute neurotoxin which readily accumulates in the tissue of organisms, is a biologically mediated process facilitated by sulfate reducing bacteria in aquatic sediments. In-situ capping is a frequently considered risk management strategy for contaminated sediments. Since placement of an in-situ cap will induce anaerobic conditions that are known to be favorable for the growth of sulfate reducing bacteria, there is justifiable concern that capping could increase mercury methylation in underlying sediments. This research builds an understanding of the effects of in-situ capping on underlying biogeochemical processes and elucidates their importance in controlling methyl mercury production. Laboratory experiments and mathematical models were implemented to simulate mercury methylation in redox conditions likely to be induced by capping using sediment from different environments. Mathematical descriptions of processes known to be involved in methylation were incorporated into the model to quantify the effects of these processes. Observations in both well-mixed slurry conditions and intact sediment columns showed that methyl mercury concentrations are strongly dependent upon biogeochemical conditions. Results from experiments with sediment spanning a range of redox conditions and organic contents suggested that sulfate reduction rates, aqueous speciation, and solid phase partitioning are involved in limiting methylation depending on bulk geochemical characteristics. A model with a mechanistic basis that incorporates the effects of these processes provides a useful means of qualitatively and quantitatively considering their cumulative impact in limiting methyl mercury production. High methyl mercury concentrations observed in some lab experiments suggest that there is reason to be concerned about anoxic conditions induced by capping; however, not all anoxic conditions led to equivalent increases in methyl mercury. Experimental and modeling results suggest that in a high organic environment, in-situ capping may produce conditions which accelerate methylation in (formerly) surficial sediment while in a low organic environment, with an overall lower potential for methylation, capping can be expected to have a less dramatic effect. Over time, two processes will temper capinduced increases in methyl mercury. Increases will only last until sulfide builds up to inhibitory levels in underlying sediment or until organic carbon is depleted and overall bacterial activity slows. By providing a more fundamental understanding of the effects of capping on mercury methylation, the results of this research will aid in identifying situations and conditions in which cap-induced increases in methyl mercury have the potential to limit the effectiveness of the management strategy.