Nonpoint Sources

Spills from tankers, pipelines, and oil wells are examples of point sources of pollution, where the origin of the contaminants is a single identifiable point. They also represent catastrophic releases of a large volume of pollutants in a short period of time. But the majority of pollution from oil is from nonpoint sources, where small amounts coming from many different places over a long period of time add up to large-scale effects. Seventy percent of the oil released by human activity into oceans worldwide is a result of small spills during petroleum consumption. These minor unreported spills can include routine discharges of fuel from commercial vessels or leakage from recreational boats.


Almost half (45%) of the petroleum entering the marine environment is from natural seeps rather than anthropogenic sources. At seeps, oil and gas bubble out of cracks in the seabed creating special environments in which new organisms grow. These organisms survive through chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis. They live in total darkness, more than four hundred meters below sea level, but survive by feeding directly off the hydrocarbons present in seeps or by eating carbon compounds resulting from chemosyn-thetic bacterial degradation of seep oil. Since 1984 oceanogra-phers have discovered chemosynthetic communities of clams, mussels, tubeworms, bacterial mats, and other organisms on the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico. United States Department of the Interior regulations protect these chemosynthetic communities from damage due to oil and gas drilling activities.

However, in North America, the majority of the release originates on land. Oil tends to collect in hazardous concentrations in the stream of wastewater coming out of cities and other populated areas. Runoff from asphalt-covered roads and parking lots enters storm drains, streams, and lakes and eventually travels to the ocean, affecting all of the ecosystems through which it passes. As cities grow, more and more people use petroleum products—lubricants, solvents, oil-based paint, and, above all, gasoline—and these are often improperly disposed of down drains and sewage pipes. Industrial plants also produce small, chronic spills that aren't noticed individually, but add up over time and enter waterways.

Taken together, land-based river and urban runoff sources constitute over half of the petroleum pollution introduced to North American coastal waters due to human activity, and 20 percent of the petroleum pollution introduced to ocean waters worldwide. When wastewater from these sources enters the marine environment it is usually by means of an estuary, an area where freshwater from land mixes with seawater. Estuaries are especially critical habitats for a variety of plants and animals, and are among the ecosystems most sensitive to pollutants.

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