The subsurface at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) is complex, comprised primarily of thick, fractured basalt flows interbedded with thinner sedimentary intervals. The unsaturated zone can be as thick as 200 m in the southwestern part of the INEEL. The Vadose Zone Research Park (VZRP), located approximately 10 km southwest of the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC), was established in 2001 to study the subsurface of a relatively undisturbed part of the INEEL. Waste percolation ponds for the INTEC were relocated to the VZRP due to concerns that perched water within the vadose zone under the original infiltration ponds (located immediately south of the INTEC) could contribute to migration of contaminants to the Snake River Plain aquifer.
Knowledge of the spatial distribution of texture and hydraulic properties is important for developing a better understanding of subsurface flow processes within the interbeds, for example, by identifying low permeability layers that could lead to the formation of perched ground-water zones. Because particle-size distributions are easier to measure than hydraulic properties, particle size serves as an analog for determining how the unsaturated hydraulic properties vary both vertically within particular interbeds and laterally within the VZRP. As part of the characterization program for the subsurface at the VZRP, unsaturated and saturated hydraulic properties were measured on 10 core samples from six boreholes. Bulk properties, including particle size, bulk density, particle density, and specific surface area, were determined on material from the same depth intervals as the core samples, with an additional 66 particle- size distributions measured on bulk samples from the same boreholes.
From lithologic logs of the 32 boreholes at the VZRP, three relatively thick interbeds (in places up to 10 m thick) were identified at depths of 35, 45, and 55 m below land surface. The 35-m interbed extends laterally over a distance of at least 900 m from the Big Lost River to the new percolation pond area of the VZRP. Most wells within the VZRP were drilled to depths less than 50 m, making it difficult to infer the lateral extent of the 45-m and 55-m interbeds. The 35-m interbed is uniform in texture both vertically and laterally; the 45-m interbed coarsens upward; and the 55-m interbed contains alternating coarse and fine layers. Seventy-one out of 90 samples were silt loams and 9 out of 90 samples were classified as either sandy loams, loamy sands, or sands. The coarsest samples were located within the 45-m and 55-m interbeds of borehole ICPP-SCI-V-215, located near the southeast corner of the new percolation pond area.
At the tops of some interbeds, baked-zone intervals were identified by their oxidized color (yellowish red to red) compared to the color of the underlying non-baked material (pale yellow to brown). The average geometric mean particle diameter of baked-zone intervals was only slightly coarser, in some cases, than the underlying non-baked sediment. This is likely due to both depositional differences between the top and bottom of the interbeds and the presence of small basalt clasts in the sediment. Core sample hydraulic properties from baked zones within the different interbeds did not show effects from alteration caused during basalt deposition, but differed mainly by texture.
Saturated hydraulic conductivities (Ksat) for the 10 core samples ranged from 10-7 to 10-4 cm/s. Low permeability layers, with Ksat values less than 10-7 cm/s, within the 35-m and 45-m interbeds may cause perched ground-water zones to form beneath the new percolation pond area, leading to the possible lateral movement of water away from the VZRP.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Spatial variability of sedimentary interbed properties near the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Idaho