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J Contam Hydrol. 2005 Sep;79(1-2):67-88.

Hydrochemical and isotopic effects associated with petroleum fuel biodegradation pathways in a chalk aquifer.

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Groundwater Protection and Restoration Group, Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, University of Sheffield, Mappin Street, Sheffield S1 3JD, UK.


Hydrochemical data, compound specific carbon isotope analysis and isotopic enrichment trends in dissolved hydrocarbons and residual electron acceptors have been used to deduce BTEX and MTBE degradation pathways in a fractured chalk aquifer. BTEX compounds are mineralised sequentially within specific redox environments, with changes in electron acceptor utilisation being defined by the exhaustion of specific BTEX components. A zone of oxygen and nitrate exhaustion extends approximately 100 m downstream from the plume source, with residual sulphate, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Within this zone complete removal of the TEX components occurs by bacterial sulphate reduction, with sulphur and oxygen isotopic enrichment of residual sulphate (epsilon(s) = -14.4 per thousand to -16.0 per thousand). Towards the plume margins and at greater distance along the plume flow path nitrate concentrations increase with delta15N values of up to +40 per thousand indicating extensive denitrification. Benzene and MTBE persist into the denitrification zone, with carbon isotope enrichment of benzene indicating biodegradation along the flow path. A Rayleigh kinetic isotope enrichment model for 13C-enrichment of residual benzene gives an apparent epsilon value of -0.66 per thousand. MTBE shows no significant isotopic enrichment (delta13C = -29.3 per thousand to -30.7 per thousand) and is isotopically similar to a refinery sample (delta13C = -30.1 per thousand). No significant isotopic variation in dissolved MTBE implies that either the magnitude of any biodegradation-induced isotopic fractionation is small, or that relatively little degradation has taken place in the presence of BTEX hydrocarbons. It is possible, however, that MTBE degradation occurs under aerobic conditions in the absence of BTEX since no groundwater samples were taken with co-existing MTBE and oxygen. Low benzene delta13C values are correlated with high sulphate delta34S, indicating that little benzene degradation has occurred in the sulphate reduction zone. Benzene degradation may be associated with denitrification since increased benzene delta13C is associated with increased delta15N in residual nitrate. Re-supply of electron acceptors by diffusion from the matrix into fractures and dispersive mixing is an important constraint on degradation rates and natural attenuation capacity in this dual-porosity aquifer.

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