Methodology for Estimating Times of Remediation Associated with Monitored Natural Attenuation

Water-Resources Investigations Report 2003-4057
By: , and 



Natural attenuation processes combine to disperse, immobilize, and biologically transform anthropogenic contaminants, such as petroleum hydrocarbons and chlorinated ethenes, in ground-water systems. The time required for these processes to lower contaminant concentrations to levels protective of human health and the environment, however, varies widely between different hydrologic systems, different chemical contaminants, and varying amounts of contaminants. This report outlines a method for estimating timeframes required for natural attenuation processes, such as dispersion, sorption, and biodegradation, to lower contaminant concentrations and mass to predetermined regulatory goals in groundwater systems. The time-of-remediation (TOR) problem described in this report is formulated as three interactive components: (1) estimating the length of a contaminant plume once it has achieved a steady-state configuration from a source area of constant contaminant concentration, (2) estimating the time required for a plume to shrink to a smaller, regulatoryacceptable configuration when source-area contaminant concentrations are lowered by engineered methods, and (3) estimating the time needed for nonaqueous phase liquid (NAPL) contaminants to dissolve, disperse, and biodegrade below predetermined levels in contaminant source areas. This conceptualization was used to develop Natural Attenuation Software (NAS), an interactive computer aquifers. NAS was designed as a screening tool and requires the input of detailed site information about hydrogeology, redox conditions, and the distribution of contaminants. Because NAS is based on numerous simplifications of hydrologic, microbial, and geochemical processes, the program may introduce unacceptable errors for highly heterogeneous hydrologic systems. In such cases, application of the TOR framework outlined in this report may require more detailed, site-specific digital modeling. The NAS software may be downloaded from the Web site Application of NAS illustrates several general characteristics shared by all TOR problems. First, the distance of stabilization of a contaminant plume is strongly dependent on the natural attenuation capacity of particular ground-water systems. The time that it takes a plume to reach a steady-state configuration, however, is independent of natural attenuation capacity. Rather, the time of stabilization is most strongly affected by the sorptive capacity of the aquifer, which is dependent on the organic matter content of the aquifer sediments, as well as the sorptive properties of individual contaminants. As a general rule, a high sorptive capacity retards a plume.s growth or shrinkage, and increases the time of stabilization. Finally, the time of NAPL dissolution depends largely on NAPL mass, composition, geometry, and hydrologic factors, such as ground-water flow rates. An example TOR analysis for petroleum hydrocarbon NAPL was performed for the Laurel Bay site in South Carolina. About 500 to 1,000 pounds of gasoline leaked into the aquifer at this site in 1991, and the NAS simulations suggested that TOR would be on the order of 10 years for soluble and poorly sorbed compounds, such as benzene and methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE). Conversely, TOR would be on the order of 40 years for less soluble, more strongly sorbed compounds, such as toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (TEX). These TOR estimates are roughly consistent with contaminant concentrations observed over 10 years of monitoring at this site where benzene and MTBE concentrations were observed to decrease rapidly and are approaching regulatory maximum concentration limits, whereas toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene concentrations decreased at a slower rate and have remained relatively high. An example TOR analysis for petroleum hydrocarbon NAPL was performed for the Laurel Bay site in South Carolina. 

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Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Methodology for estimating times of remediation associated with monitored natural attenuation
Series title Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number 2003-4057
DOI 10.3133/wri034057
Year Published 2003
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s) Toxic Substances Hydrology Program
Description 51 p.
Country United States
State South Carolina
Other Geospatial Laurel Bay
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