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Environ Sci Technol. 2008 Oct 1;42(19):7118-24.

Paleo-roothole facilitated transport of aromatic hydrocarbons through a Holocene clay bed.

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School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK.


A field study involving high-resolution core sampling of a 0.5-2 m thick clay bed was undertaken at a contaminated former industrial facility in the UK to establish the nature and significance of preferential contaminant flowpaths. In contrast to most previous research, the focus was upon a buried aquitard, in this case a Holocene lagoonal clay located 6 m below ground surface and overlain by a sand aquifer impacted by historic nonaqueous phase liquid hydrocarbon spills. The study, involving 11 cores over a 630 by 150 m area, demonstrated that the presence of paleo- (i.e., preupper sand) rootholes controlled the degree of dissolved-phase benzene penetration into the aquitard. Where homogeneous, largely paleoroot-free clay is present (hydraulic conductivity 3 x 10(-5) m/d.), contaminant concentrations in the clay decline rapidly with depth: modeling showed the dominant transport process to be diffusion. In other cores, elevated benzene concentrations deep in the clay require advection to have occurred, presumably along preferential pathways. The latter were shown by thin sectioning, core slice mapping and 3-D X-ray tomography to be organic matter lined rootholes of < 2 mm aperture. The significance of such preferential pathways was confirmed quantitatively by measuring hydraulic conductivity (0.04 m/d) and calculating flux, the latter being over 10 times greater than expected from steady state diffusion. Our study hence demonstrates paleoenvironmental control of modern-day contaminant transport through a clay aquitard. It is suggested that many subaerial unconformities in mudrocks, especially those associated with even rudimentary paleosol development would lead to permeability enhancement and therefore afford substantially reduced protection against migrating contaminants. In contaminated site investigations, it is hence necessary to consider the aquitard paleoenvironment and not just the main rock type present.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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