Assessing the natural attenuation of organic contaminants in aquifers using plume-scale electron and carbon balances

Model development with analysis of uncertainty and parameter sensitivity.

Steven F. Thornton, David N. Lerner, Steven A. Banwart

Journal of Contaminant Hydrology, 2001, vol. 53, no 3-4, pp.199-232.


A quantitative methodology is described for the field-scale performance assessment of natural attenuation using plume-scale electron and carbon balances. This provides a practical framework for the calculation of global mass balances for contaminant plumes, using mass inputs from the plume source, background groundwater and plume residuals in a simplified box model. Biodegradation processes and reactions included in the analysis are identified from electron acceptors, electron donors and degradation products present in these inputs. Parameter values used in the model are obtained from data acquired during typical site investigation and groundwater monitoring studies for natural attenuation schemes. The approach is evaluated for a UK Permo-Triassic Sandstone aquifer contaminated with a plume of phenolic compounds. Uncertainty in the model predictions and sensitivity to parameter values was assessed by probabilistic modelling using Monte Carlo methods. Sensitivity analyses were compared for different input parameter probability distributions and a base case using fixed parameter values, using an identical conceptual model and data set. Results show that consumption of oxidants by biodegradation is approximately balanced by the production of CH4 and total dissolved inorganic carbon (TDIC) which is conserved in the plume. Under this condition either the plume electron or carbon balance can be used to determine contaminant mass loss, which is equivalent to only 4% of the estimated source term. This corresponds to a first order, plume-averaged, half-life of >800 years. The electron balance is particularly sensitive to uncertainty in the source term and dispersive inputs. Reliable historical information on contaminant spillages and detailed site investigation are necessary to accurately characterise the source term. The dispersive influx is sensitive to variability in the plume mixing zone width. Consumption of aqueous oxidants greatly exceeds that of mineral oxidants in the plume, but electron acceptor supply is insufficient to meet the electron donor demand and the plume will grow. The aquifer potential for degradation of these contaminants is limited by high contaminant concentrations and the supply of bioavailable electron acceptors. Natural attenuation will increase only after increased transport and dilution.

Schematic plan and section of the site, showing location in UK, general observation wells and approximate location of plume (10mg l-1 phenol).