Preliminary Conceptual Models of the Occurrence, Fate, and Transport of Chlorinated Solvents in Karst Regions of Tennessee


Published and unpublished reports and data from 22 contaminated sites in Tennessee were reviewed to develop preliminary conceptual models of the behavior of chlorinated solvents in karst aquifers. Chlorinated solvents are widely used in many industrial operations. High density and volatility, low viscosity, and solubilities that are low in absolute terms but high relative to drinking-water standards make chlorinated solvents mobile and persistent contaminants that are difficult to find or remove when released into the ground-water system. The major obstacle to the downward migration of chlorinated solvents in the subsurface is the capillary pressure of small openings. In karst aquifers, chemical dissolution has enlarged joints, bedding planes, and other openings that transmit water. Because the resulting karst conduits are commonly too large to develop significant capillary pressures, chlorinated solvents can migrate to considerable depth in karst aquifers as dense nonaqueous-phase liquids (DNAPL's). Once chlorinated DNAPL accumulates in a karst aquifer, it becomes a source for dissolved-phase contamination of ground water. A relatively small amount of chlorinated DNAPL has the potential to contaminate ground water over a significant area for decades or longer.

Conceptual models are needed to assist regulators and site managers in characterizing chlorinated-solvent contamination in karst settings and in evaluating clean-up alternatives. Five preliminary conceptual models were developed, emphasizing accumulation sites for chlorinated DNAPL in karst aquifers. The models were developed for the karst regions of Tennessee, but are intended to be transferable to similar karst settings elsewhere. The five models of DNAPL accumulation in karst settings are (1) trapping in regolith, (2) pooling at the top of bedrock, (3) pooling in bedrock diffuse-flow zones, (4) pooling in karst conduits, and (5) pooling in isolation from active ground-water flow.

More than one conceptual model of DNAPL accumulation may be applicable to a given site, depending on details of the contaminant release and geologic setting. Trapping in regolith is most likely to occur where the regolith is thick and relatively impermeable with few large cracks, fissures, or macropores. Accumulation at the top of rock is favored by flat-lying strata with few fractures or karst features near the bedrock surface. Fractures or karst features near the bedrock surface encourage migration of chlorinated DNAPL into karst conduits or diffuse-flow zones in bedrock. DNAPL can migrate through one bedrock flow regime into an underlying flow regime with different characteristics or into openings that are isolated from significant ground-water flow.

As a general rule, the difficulty of finding and removing DNAPL increases with depth, lateral distance from the source, and complexity of the ground-water flow system. The prospects for mitigation are generally best for DNAPL accumulation in the regolith or at the bedrock surface. However, many such accumulations are likely to be difficult to find or remove. Accumulations in bedrock diffuse-flow zones or in fractures isolated from flow may be possible to find and partially mitigate, but will likely leave significant amounts of contaminant in small fractures or as solute diffused into primary pores.

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