Review of unsaturated-zone transport and attenuation of volatile organic compound (VOC) plumes leached from shallow source zones

Michael Rivett, GP Wealthall, RA Dearden, TA McAlary

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103 Citations (Scopus)


Reliable prediction of the unsaturated zone transport and attenuation of dissolved-phase VOC (volatile organic compound) plumes leached from shallow source zones is a complex, multi-process, environmental problem. It is an important problem as sources, which include solid-waste landfills, aqueous-phase liquid discharge lagoons and NAPL releases partially penetrating the unsaturated zone, may persist for decades. Natural attenuation processes operating in the unsaturated zone that, uniquely for VOCs includes volatilisation, may, however, serve to protect underlying groundwater and potentially reduce the need for expensive remedial actions. Review of the literature indicates that only a few studies have focused upon the overall leached VOC source and plume scenario as a whole. These are mostly modelling studies that often involve high strength, non-aqueous phase liquid (NAPL) sources for which density-induced and diffusive vapour transport is significant. Occasional dissolved-phase aromatic hydrocarbon controlled infiltration field studies also exist. Despite this lack of focus on the overall problem, a wide range of process-based unsaturated zone - VOC research has been conducted that may be collated to build good conceptual model understanding of the scenario, particularly for the much studied aromatic hydrocarbons and chlorinated aliphatic hydrocarbons (CAHs). In general, the former group is likely to be attenuated in the unsaturated zone due to their ready aerobic biodegradation, albeit with rate variability across the literature, whereas the fate of the latter is far less likely to be dominated by a single mechanism and dependent upon the relative importance of the various attenuation processes within individual site - VOC scenarios. Analytical and numerical modelling tools permit effective process representation of the whole scenario, albeit with potential for inclusion of additional processes - e.g., multi-mechanistic sorption phase partitioning, and provide good opportunity for further sensitivity analysis and development to practitioner use. There remains a significant need to obtain intermediate laboratory-scale and particularly field-scale (actual site and controlled release) datasets that address the scenario as a whole and permit validation of the available models. Integrated assessment of the range of simultaneous processes that combine to influence leached plume generation, transport and attenuation in the unsaturated zone is required. Component process research needs are required across the problem scenario and include: the simultaneous volatilisation and dissolution of source zones; development of appropriate field-scale dispersion estimates for the unsaturated zone; assessment of transient VOC exchanges between aqueous, vapour and sorbed phases and their influence upon plume attenuation; development of improved field methods to recognise and quantify biodegradation of CAHs; establishment of the influence of co-contaminants; and, finally, translation of research findings into more robust practitioner practice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)130-156
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Contaminant Hydrology
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jan 2011


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