Water quality of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers

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Toxic contamination

Issue

The watersheds of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers are located in the Centre du Québec region, where there are numerous socio-economic activities. With a drainage basin area of 23 720 km2, the Richelieu River is the most significant tributary on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. Its mean annual flow was 323 m3/s during the 2001–2003 period and 484 m3/s during the 2004–2013 period, at the municipality of Sorel-Tracy. From its source in Lake Champlain in the United States, the river flows northward into the St. Lawrence River at Sorel-Tracy. Its main tributaries in Quebec are the South, Huron, Lacolle and Acadia rivers. The Canadian part of the basin measures 3 855 km2, which represents 16% of its total area.

Figure 1 Drainage basins of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers

Watersheds of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers

Long description: Figure representing the watersheds of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. The two watersheds are situated next to each another, the Richelieu River watershed located west of the Yamaska River watershed. Both rivers run south to north. The figure also shows their position in relation to the St. Lawrence River and the location where the two rivers flow into the Sorel Islands and Lake Saint-Pierre. The Sorel Islands are located at the head of Lake Saint-Pierre downstream from Montréal. The figure shows the Richelieu River watershed extending beyond the US border.

The Yamaska River starts in Brome Lake and empties into the St. Lawrence River in the Lake Saint-Pierre area. Its watershed covers a total area of 4 784 km2 and is drained by three main tributaries: Black, Yamaska North and Yamaska South East rivers. The river’s runoff volume is six times smaller than that of the Richelieu River. For the 2001–2003 and 2004–2013 periods, its estimated runoff volume was 46 m3/s and 70 m3/s at Saint-Hyacinthe.

The watershed regions of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers are home to a number of industries specialized in agri-food, chemicals, metals processing, plastics and textiles. Some of these past or current industrial activities are likely to result in the release of toxic substances into the environment, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated dioxins and furans (PCDD/Fs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), all of which are present in the waters of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers.

© 2005, Jean Daneault, World of Images, CCDMD.

© 2005, Jean Daneault, World of Images, CCDMD.

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Overview of the situation

Between 2001 and 2013, the Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs collected 53 samples from the Yamaska River at Saint-Hyacinthe and 50 samples from the Richelieu River at Sorel-Tracy. Samples were collected using an automatic sampler (ECSOTE) described in the study conducted by Laliberté and Mercier (2006). The target objectives were to determine PCB, PAH, PCDD/F and PBDE concentrations in water. The concentrations that were measured were subsequently compared with quality criteria for protection of terrestrial piscivores. These criteria are concentrations of a substance in water that, over several generations, will not cause a significant decline in the viability or commercial and recreational value of an animal population that has been exposed to a contaminant through water consumption or diet (MENV, 2013). It should be noted that PCB and PCDD/F concentrations could be compared, but no criterion is available for PAHs or PBDEs.

An analysis of the temporal evolution of the concentration of these substances between the periods of 2001–2003 and 2004–2013 was conducted for the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers.

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Sources of PCB, PAH, PCDD/F and PBDE contaminants

PCBs are very stable compounds but not readily biodegradable; they are one of the most persistent contaminants in the environment. Since 1980 in North America, the manufacture, import or use of PCBs has been prohibited in sealed electrical equipment such as transformers. Despite this restriction, PCBs are still present in the environment.

PAHs released into the environment have natural and anthropogenic (human-made) sources. It is therefore difficult to determine the exact sources of PAHs that are present in a water environment. Forest fires are the largest natural source of PAHs in Canada. There are, however, a number of anthropo& hgenic sources: aluminum smelters, wood burning for home heating, creosote-treated products, spills of petroleum products, metallurgical plants, coking plants, thermal electric power stations, transportation, waste incineration, etc. (Environment Canada and Health Canada, 1994).

PCDD/Fs are by-products of materials that have been burned and the manufacture of chemical compounds. Forest fires, incineration, wood burning, use of fossil fuels (coal, fuel oil and exhaust fumes from motor vehicles), electricity production and effluent from textile industries are sources of dioxin and furan emissions. In Canada, the principal source of PCDD/Fs is the burning of municipal and medical waste (Health Canada, 2004). PCDD/Fs are known for their high toxicity.

PBDEs) were added to various plastic dies, synthetic resins and textile fibres to reduce the flammability of a wide range of consumer products: furniture upholstery materials, casing for electronic equipment, automobile parts, etc. After their use, these compounds are released into the environment and bioaccumulate in the food chain.

Figure 2 PCB concentrations in the waters of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers (2001–2013)

PCB concentrations in the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers

Long description: Chart representing the evolution in PCB concentrations in the waters of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers (2001–2013). In the Richelieu River in Tracy, the results reveal that PCB concentrations have varied between 89 pg/L to 1,330 pg/L during the 2001–2003 period and from 114 to 1,095 pg/L during the 2004–2013 period.

The highest concentrations were measured in April 2002 (1 330 pg/L), May 2002 (1048 pg/L), June 2002 (1046 pg/L), March 2003 (1,015 pg/L) and January 2004 (1,095 pg/L). During the period studied, the concentrations varied mostly between 200 pg/L and 550 pg/L. PCB concentrations in the water are almost all higher than the criterion of 120 pg/L established for the protection of fish-eating wildlife.

In the Yamaska River in Saint-Hyacinthe, PCB concentrations have varied between 237 pg/L and 1,714 pg/L during the 2001–2003 period and from 140 pg/L to 2,026 pg/L during the 2004-2013 period. The highest concentrations were measured in April 2001 (1,472 pg/L), August 2002 (872 pg/L), March 2003 (1,714 pg/L), April 2005 (1,278 pg/L) and March 2013 (2,026 pg/L). During the period studied, the concentrations varied mostly between 300 pg/L and 650 pg/L. The average PCB concentrations in the water are all higher than the criterion of 120 pg/L established for the protection of fish-eating wildlife.

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Polychlorinated biphenyls

Findings show that, in the Richelieu River, concentrations of PCBs varied from 89 pg/L to 1330 pg/L (median: 354 pg/L) during the 2001–2003 period and from 114 to 1095 pg/L (median: 318 pg/L) during the 2004–2013 period. Average concentrations of PCBs adjusted for a turbidity of 23 nephelometric turbidity units (NTUs) were not significantly different from one period to the next; they were 363 pg/L and 330 pg/L, respectively (Figure 2).

During both periods, median concentrations of PCBs exceeded the criteria of 120 pg/L for protection of terrestrial piscivores. The seven predominant PCB congeners during the two periods studied were International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) numbers 138, 153, 101, 110, 118, 52 and 149. These seven congeners represented, on average, from 30% to 37% of the total concentration of PCBs.

Findings show that, in the Yamaska River, concentrations of PCBs varied from 237 pg/L to 1714 pg/L (median: 489 pg/L) during the 2001–2003 period, and from 140 pg/L to 2026 pg/L (median: 431 pg/L) during the 2004–2013 period. Average concentrations of PCBs adjusted for a turbidity of 16 NTUs were not significantly different from one period to the next; they were 460 pg/L and 416 pg/L, respectively. During both periods, median concentrations of PCBs exceeded the criteria of 120 pg/L for protection of terrestrial piscivores. The seven predominant PCB congeners during the two periods studied were IUPAC numbers 138, 153, 101, 110, 52, 95 and congener 49 or 95, depending on the period. These seven congeners represented, on average, from 32% to 35% of the total concentration of PCBs.

The total median concentrations of PCBs measured in both of the bodies of water studied are three to four times higher than the TPC. That means that wildlife species that feed primarily on fish could be exposed to high quantities of PCBs, considering the bioaccumulation of these substances in the food chain.

Figure 3 PAH concentrations considered to have a carcinogenic potential in waters of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers (2001–2013)

PAH concentrations in the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers

Long description: Chart representing the evolution of PAH concentrations considered to have a carcinogenic potential in the waters of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers (2001–2013).

In the Richelieu River in Tracy, the PAH concentrations with a carcinogenic potential varied between 1 ng/l to 32 ng/l during the 2001–2003 period and between 0 ng/l and 21 ng/l during the 2004-2013 period. The highest concentrations were measured in April 2002 (32.28 ng/l), June 2002 (18.33 ng/l), March 2003 (27.49 ng/l), January 2004 (17 ng/l) and April 2004 (20.5 ng/l). During the period studied, the concentrations varied mostly between 2.3 ng/l and 10.4 ng/l.

In the Yamaska River in Saint-Hyacinthe, the PAH concentrations with a carcinogenic potential varied between 3 ng/l and 57 ng/l during the 2001–2003 period and between 1 and 84 ng/l during the 2004–2013 period. The highest concentrations were measured in April 2001 (57 ng/l), March 2003 (51.6 ng/l), April 2004 (24.3 ng/l), April 2005 (84.4 ng/l) and March 2007 (28.5 ng/l). During the period studied, the concentrations varied mostly between 3 ng/l and 10 ng/l.

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Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

The presence of PAHs in the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers follows patterns that are similar to PCBs.

In the Richelieu River, total PAH concentrations varied from 7 to 86 ng/L (median: 16 ng/L) during the 2001–2003 period, and from 9 to 81 ng/L (median: 24 ng/L) during the 2004–2013 period, while PAH concentrations for Group 1 (having a carcinogenic potential) varied from 1 ng/L to 32 ng/L (median: 3.17 ng/L) and from 0 ng/L to 21 ng/L (median: 5.67 ng/L), respectively. As for the average adjusted concentrations of total PAHs and the PAH concentrations of Group 1 for a turbidity of 23 NTUs, they were not significantly different from one period to the next. During the 2001–2003 and 2004–2013 periods, they were 19.5 ng/L and 23.5 ng/L for total PAHs, and 4.34 ng/L and 5.19 ng/L for PAHs of Group 1, respectively.

In the Yamaska River, total PAH concentrations varied from 15 ng/L to 154 ng/L (median: 23 ng/L) during the 2001–2003 period, and from 10 ng/L to 194 ng/L (median: 20 ng/L) during the 2004–2013 period, while the PAH concentrations of Group 1 (having a carcinogenic potential) varied from 3 ng/L to 57 ng/L (median: 5.65 ng/L) and from 1 to 84 ng/L (median: 4.15 ng/L), respectively (Figure 3). As for the average adjusted concentrations of the total PAHs for a turbidity of 16 NTUs, they were not significantly different from one period to the next; during the 2001–2003 and 2004–2013 periods, they were 25 ng/L and 21.8 ng/L, respectively. However, the average adjusted concentrations of the PAHs of Group 1 for a turbidity of 16  NTUs were higher during the 2001–2003 period than during the 2004–2013 period, i.e., 5.83 ng/L compared with 4.60 ng/L.

© 2002, Michel Pratt, World of Images, CCDMD.

© 2002, Michel Pratt, World of Images, CCDMD.

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Polychlorinated dioxins and furans

In the Richelieu River, total concentrations of chlorinated dioxins and furans varied from 2 pg/L to 92 pg/ (median: 16 pg/L) during the 2001–2003 period, and from 4 to 61 pg/L (median: 22 pg/L) during the period from 2004 to 2013. As for concentrations in toxic equivalents of 2,3,7,8 TCDDFootnote 1, they varied from 0.003 pg/L to 0.619 pg/L (median: 0.048 pg/L) during the first period and from 0.007 pg/L to 0.232 pg/L (median: 0.081 pg/L) during the second (Figure 4). Average adjusted concentrations of chlorinated dioxins and furans and average concentrations in toxic equivalents of 2,3,7,8 TCDD for a turbidity of 23 NTUs were not significantly different from one period to the next during the 2001–2003 and 2004–2013 periods; they were 18.2 and 17 pg/L for the first and 0.063 pg/L and 0.055 pg/L for the second, respectively. During the two periods studied, average concentrations in toxic equivalents of 2,3,7,8 TCDD exceeded the criteria of 0.003 pg/L for protection of terrestrial piscivores.

In the Yamaska River, total concentrations of chlorinated dioxins and furans varied from 10 to 137 pg/L (median: 19 pg/L) during the 2001–2003 period, and from 5 to 128 pg/L (median: 18 pg/L) during the 2004–2013 period.

As for concentrations in toxic equivalents of 2,3,7,8 TCDD, they varied from 0.029 pg/L to 0.639 pg/L (median: 0.085 pg/L) during the first period, and from 0.011 pg/L to 0.825 pg/L (median: 0.104 pg/L) during the second. Average adjusted total concentrations of chlorinated dioxins and furans for a turbidity of 16 NTUs were higher during the 2001–2003 period than during the period from 2004 to 2013, i.e., 21.9 pg/L compared with 15.5 pg/L. However, average adjusted concentrations in toxic equivalents of 2,3,7,8 TCDD for a turbidity of 16  NTUs were not significantly different from one period to the next; they were 0.098 pg/L during the 2001–2003 period and 0.110 pg/L during the 2004–2013 period, respectively. During the two periods studied, median concentrations in toxic equivalents of 2,3,7,8 TCDD exceeded the criteria of 0.003 pg/L for protection of terrestrial piscivores.

As in the case of PCBs and PAHs, concentrations of PCDD/Fs in waters of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers generally change with the flow and level of turbidity.

Figure 4 PCDD/F concentrations in toxic equivalents (TEQ) in waters of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers (2001–2013)

PCDD/F concentrations in the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers

Long description: Chart representing the evolution of PCDD/F concentrations in toxic equivalents (TEQ) in the waters of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers (2001–2013).

In the Richelieu River in Tracy, the concentrations in toxic equivalents of the 2,3,7,8-TCDD varied between 0.003 pg/L and 0.619 pg/L during the 2001–2003 period and between 0.007 pg/L and 0.232 pg/L during the 2004-2013 period. The highest concentrations were measured in February 2002 (0.619 pg/L), March 2002 (0.391 pg/L) and March 2003 (0.456 pg/L). During the period studied, the concentrations varied mostly between 0.026 pg/L and 0.18 pg/L.

In the Yamaska River in Saint-Hyacinthe, the concentrations in toxic equivalents of the 2,3,7,8-TCDD varied between 0.029 pg/L and 0.639 pg/L during the 2001–2003 period and between 0.011 pg/L and 0.825 pg/L during the 2004-2013 period. The highest concentrations were measured in April 2001 (0.621 pg/L), March 2003 (0.639 pg/L), April 2005 (0.627 pg/L), March 2007 (0.825 pg/L) and June 2007 (0.512 pg/L). During the period studied, the concentrations varied mostly between 0.05 pg/L and 0.2 pg/L.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers

Figure 5 PBDE concentrations in waters of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers (2004–2013)

PBDE concentrations in the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers

Long description: Chart representing the evolution in PBDE concentrations in the waters of the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers (2004–2013). In the Richelieu River in Tracy, the analyses focused only on the 2004 2013 period and the PBDE concentrations varied between 91 pg/L and 1543 pg/L. The highest concentrations were measured in April 2005 (745 pg/L), October 2010 (1,543 pg/L) and June 2013 (829 pg/L). During the period studied, the concentrations varied mostly between 170 pg/L and 480 pg/L. In the Yamaska River in Saint-Hyacinthe, the analyses focused only on the 2004–2013 period and the PBDE concentrations varied between 69 pg/L and 5,207 pg/L. The highest concentrations were measured in April 2005 (5,207 pg/L), March 2007 (2,022 pg/L) and March 2013 (5,154 pg/L). During the period studied, the concentrations varied mostly between 260 pg/L and 900 pg/L.

In the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers, PBDE analyses were conducted only for the 2004–2013 period. In the Richelieu River, concentrations varied from 91 pg/L to 1543 pg/L (median: 316 pg/L), whereas the average concentration for a turbidity of 23 NTUs was 397 pg/L. In the Yamaska River, concentrations varied from 69 pg/L to 5207 pg/L (median: 427 pg/L), whereas the average concentration for a turbidity of 16 NTUs was 466 pg/L.

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Perspectives

Future studies will focus on the monitoring of the same contaminants studied in the Richelieu and Yamaska rivers. Long-term monitoring of the contamination of the aquatic environment can then be ensured.

© 2009, Robert Desjardins, World of Images, CCDMD.

© 2009, Robert Desjardins, World of Images, CCDMD.

Monitoring the State of the St. Lawrence program

Five government partners — Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Parks Canada, the ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques du Québec and the Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs —and Stratégies Saint-Laurent, a non governmental organization active within riverside communities, are pooling their expertise and their efforts to report back to the public on the state and long-term evolution of the St. Lawrence.

To do that, environmental indicators have been developed from the data gathered within the framework of the environmental monitoring activities that each organization has been pursuing over the years. Those activities concern the main components of the environment, namely water, sediments, biological resources, uses and shorelines.

For more information on the Monitoring of the State of the St. Lawrence program, please visit the following website.

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For more information

ENVIRONMENT CANADA and HEALTH CANADA, 1994. Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Priority Substances List Assessment Report: Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, Ottawa, Minister of Supply and Services Canada, Cat. no. En40-215/42F.

LALIBERTÉ, D., and N. MERCIER, 2006. Application de la méthode ECSOTE : l’échantillonnage intégré pour la mesure des BPC, des HAP, des dioxines et des furanes dans l’eau des rivières Richelieu et Yamaska 2001-2003, Québec, ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs, Direction du suivi de l’état de l’environnement, 38 p. and 18 appendices.

LALIBERTÉ, D., and N. MERCIER, 2006. Comparaison des méthodes ECSOTE et Goulden d’extraction des BPC, des HAP, des dioxines et des furanes dans l’eau de surface et des effluents de stations d’épuration municipales, Québec, ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs, Direction du suivi de l’état de l’environnement, 22 p. and 8 appendices.

MINISTÈRE DU DÉVELOPPEMENT DURABLE, DE L’ENVIRONNEMENT DE LA FAUNE ET DES PARCS (MDDEFP), 2013. Critères de qualité de l’eau de surface, 3e édition, Québec, Direction du suivi de l’état de l’environnement, ISBN 978-2-550-68533-3 (PDF), 510 p. and 16 appendices.

PICHÉ, I. and M. SIMONEAU, 1998. Le bassin de la rivière Richelieu : profil géographique, sources de pollution, intervention d’assainissement et qualité des eaux, 1995, section 1 dans Le bassin versant de la rivière Richelieu : l’état de l’écosystème aquatique – 1995, Ministère de l’Environnement et de la Faune du Québec (éd.), Direction des écosystèmes aquatiques, Québec, Envirodoq no EN980604, rapport no EA-13.

PRIMEAU S., N. LA VIOLETTE, J. ST-ONGE and D. BERRYMAN, 1999. Le bassin de la rivière Yamaska; description de l’aire d’étude, pression et réponses, section 1 dans Le bassin Yamaska : état de l’écosystème aquatique, Ministère de l’Environnement et de la Faune du Québec (éd.) Québec, Direction des écosystèmes aquatiques, Envirodoq no EN990224, rapport no EA-14.

HEALTH CANADA, February 2004. It’s Your Health – Dioxins and Furans, on the Health Canada website, [Online]. (Page consulted June 3, 2004).

Written by

Denis Laliberté

Direction du suivi de l’état de l’environnement
Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et
de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques

Footnotes

Footnote 1

PCDD/F concentrations are expressed in total toxic equivalents.

Return to footnote 1