Atmospheric methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) concentrations in southern New Jersey generally exceeded concentrations in samples taken from the unsaturated zone. A simple unsaturated zone transport model indicates that MTBE degradation can explain the attenuation with half-lives from a few months to a couple of years. Tert-butyl alcohol (TBA), a possible degradation product of MTBE, was detected in unsaturated-zone samples at concentrations exceeding atmospheric levels at some sites, suggesting the possible conversion of MTBE to TBA. At sites where MTBE was detected in shallow groundwater, the concentration was typically higher than the overlying unsaturated-zone concentration. This observation is consistent with outgassing from the aquifer and combined with the unsaturated-zone attenuation suggests some of the MTBE detections in shallow groundwater are nonatmospheric in origin, coming from leaking tanks, road runoff, or other sources. The identification of sources of MTBE in groundwater and attenuation mechanisms through the hydrologic cycle is critical in developing an understanding of the long-term effect of MTBE releases.
Additional publication details
Methyl tert-butyl ether degradation in the unsaturated zone and the relation between MTBE in the atmosphere and shallow groundwater