1 Department of Environmental Engineering, Technical University of Denmark2 Water Resources Engineering, Department of Environmental Engineering, Technical University of Denmark3 University of Neuchâtel
Chlorinated ethenes are among the most widespread contaminants in the subsurface and a major threat to groundwater quality at numerous contaminated sites. Many of these contaminated sites are found in low-permeability media, such as clay tills, where contaminant transport is controlled by diffusion. Degradation and transport processes of chlorinated ethenes are not well understood in such geological settings, therefore risk assessment and remediation at these sites are particularly challenging. In this work, a combined approach of chemical and isotope analysis on core samples, and reactive transport modeling has been used to identify the degradation processes occurring at the core scale. The field data was from a site located at Vadsby, Denmark, where chlorinated solvents were spilled during the 1960-70’s, resulting in contamination of the clay till and the underlying sandy layer (15 meters below surface). The clay till is heavily contaminated between 4 and 15 mbs, both with the mother compounds PCE/TCE and TCA and the daughter products (DCE, VC, ethene, DCA), indicating the occurrence of natural dechlorination of both PCE/TCE and TCA. Intact core samples of length 0.5m were collected from the source zone (between 6 and 12 mbs). Concentrations and stable isotope ratios of the mother compounds and their daughter products, as well as redox parameters, fatty acids and microbial data, were analyzed with discrete sub-sampling along the cores. More samples (each 5 mm) were collected around the observed higher permeability zones such as sand lenses, sand stringers and fractures, where a higher degradation activity was expected. This study made use of a reactive transport model to investigate the appropriateness of several conceptual models. The conceptual models considered the location of dechlorination and degradation pathways (biotic reductive dechlorination or abiotic β-elimination with iron minerals) in three core profiles. The model includes diffusion in the matrix, sequential reductive dechlorination, abiotic degradation, isotope fractionation due to degradation and due to diffusion in the clay matrix, as heavier isotopes are expected to diffuse slower than lighter ones. The isotope data are shown to be crucial to distinguish between the tested conceptual models for transport and degradation, and made it possible to select a unique conceptual model for each core profile. This study reveals that biotic and abiotic degradation occurred concurrently in several zones inside the clay matrix, and that abiotic degradation of cis-DCE was the dominant attenuation process in the cores. Furthermore reductive dechlorination of cis-DCE to VC, and further to ethene, was documented in several zones in the low-permeability media. Previous studies have shown that degradation might be limited to high permeability zones in clay tills, thus limiting the applicability of remediation strategies based on enhanced biodegradation. Therefore the occurrence of degradation inside the clay matrix is an important finding, that is further supported by microbial and chemical data. Improved understanding of degradation processes in clay tills is useful for improving the reliability of risk assessment and the design of remediation schemes for chlorinated solvents.