Sewage Plume in a Sand and Gravel Aquifer, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

U.S. Geological Survey, Water Supply Paper 2218

Dennis R. LeBlanc

This report is available as a pdf below


Secondarily treated domestic sewage has been disposed of on surface sand beds at the sewage treatment facility at Otis Air Force Base, Massachusetts, since 1936. Infiltration of the sewage through the sand beds into the underlying unconfined sand and gravel aquifer has resulted in a plume of sewage-contaminated ground water that is 2,500 to 3,500 feet wide, 75 feet thick, and more than 11,000 feet long. The plume extends south and southwest of the sand beds in the same direction as the regional flow of ground water, and is overlain by 20 to 50 feet of ground water derived from precipitation that recharges the aquifer. The bottom of the plume generally coincides with the contact between the permeable sand and gravel and underlying finer grained sediments.

The distributions in the aquifer of specific conductance, temperature, boron, chloride, sodium, phosphorus, nitrogen (total of all species), ammonia, nitrate, dissolved oxygen, and detergents are used to delineate the plume. In ground water outside the plume, the detergent concentration is less than 0.1 milligrams per liter as MBAS (methylene blue active substances), the ammonia-nitrogen concentration is less than 0.1 milligrams per liter, the boron concentration is less than 50 micrograms per liter, and specific conductance is less than 80 mircromhos per centimeter. In the center of the plume, detergent concentrations as high as 2.6 milligrams per liter as MBAS, ammonia-nitrogen concentrations as high as 20 milligrams per liter, boron concentrations as high as 400 micrograms per liter, and specific conductance as high as 405 micromhos per centimeter were measured.

Chloride, sodium, and boron are transported by the southward-flowing ground water without significant retardation, and seem to be diluted only by hydrodynamic dispersion. The movement of phosphorus is greatly restricted by sorption. Phosphorus concentrations do not exceed 0.05 milligrams per liter farther than 2,500 feet from the sand beds. Detergent concentrations in the plume are highest between 3,000 and 10,000 feet from the sand beds and reflect the introduction of nonbiodegradable detergents in 1946 and the conversion to biodegradable detergents in 1964.

The center of the plume as far as 5,000 feet from the sand beds contains nitrogen as ammonia, but no nitrate and no dissolved oxygen. Ammonia is gradually oxidized to nitrate between 5,000 and 8,000 feet from the sand beds, and at distances greater than 8,000 feet oxidation of ammonia is essentially complete. Ammonia also is oxidized to nitrate along the top and sides of the plume within 5,000 of the beds where the contaminated ground water mixes with uncontaminated ground water that contains up to 11 milligrams per liter dissolved oxygen.

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