Case studies in groundwater contaminant fate and transport

Environmental Science



A case study of groundwater contamination is a detailed study of a single site contaminated with a chemical or mixture that is known to be a problem at many sites. The goal of case studies is to provide insights into the physical, chemical, and biological processes controlling migration, natural attenuation, or remediation of common groundwater contaminants. Ideally, processes occurring at a case study site are representative of other sites so that knowledge gained from these intensive studies can be applied at thousands of sites where fewer data are available. Several characteristics of case studies contribute to their value. First, they may have tens to hundreds of monitoring wells, compared to fewer than ten wells at some contaminated sites. Second, some case studies continue for many years or even decades, providing insights into temporal progression of slow processes. Third, analytical methods prohibitively expensive for routine use or under development may be tested at case study sites. Finally, the ongoing characterization typical of case study sites builds a foundation of knowledge that facilitates sophisticated experimental design and testing of new methods. This article is divided into sections based on the contaminant type because the chemical and biological processes required for remediation vary for each contaminant. Most importantly, some contaminants can be biodegraded whereas metals and radionuclides cannot be destroyed but can be immobilized or rendered less toxic. The emphasis is on case studies of natural processes that control the fate and transport of contaminants in groundwater rather than on active remediation methods. The principles learned from these studies may form the basis for design of remedial strategies. The organic contaminants are divided into: petroleum hydrocarbons, fuel oxygenates, coal tar and wastes from manufactured gas plants, and chlorinated solvents. The inorganic contaminants covered are metals and radionuclides, arsenic, and nitrate. Case studies of mixed waste plumes from landfills are also described. Experimental sites where contaminants have been introduced into an aquifer as an emplaced source or a controlled release may not meet the above definition of case studies, but some are included because the overall goal is to impart lessons learned from detailed field studies. It is impossible to cover all case studies in this short format. Conversely, focusing on one or two does not convey the breadth of research results in entire range of case studies. Instead, the strategy is to describe the evolution of knowledge for each contaminant class while providing citations of relevant case studies. Much of the progress in understanding of the fate of contaminants in groundwater is based on laboratory studies; thus whenever possible, papers that included both field and laboratory results have been included among the citations. Two topics of growing importance have not been covered. These are the fate of pharmaceuticals in groundwater and discharge of contaminant plumes to surface water. These topics merit coverage in the future as knowledge grows and case studies increase in number.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Case studies in groundwater contaminant fate and transport
Series title Environmental Science
DOI 10.1093/OBO/9780199363445-0096
Edition Online First
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher Oxford Bibliographies
Contributing office(s) WMA - Earth System Processes Division
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