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Fossil rootlet biopores as conduits for contaminant transport through clay horizons: a case study of DNAPL behaviour in Severn alluvium, UK

Emanuel, D., Sapsford, D. J.
Environmental earth sciences 2016 v.75 no.11 pp. 972
alluvium, aquifers, capillarity, case studies, clay, coal tar, dense nonaqueous phase liquids, estuaries, fossils, hydraulic conductivity, plant fibers, surface tension, United Kingdom
This paper presents a case study of several DNAPL contaminated sites around the Severn Estuary (UK) where a combination of detailed observations, core dissections and physicochemical characterisation of alluvial clay–silt horizons have revealed the presence of fossil rootlet biopores which act and have the potential to act as conduits for contaminant migration through up to 13 m of clay–silt. The biopores are shown to penetrate the low-permeability (K ~ 10⁻¹⁰ m/s) clay–silt matrix throughout its entire depth (up to 13 m) and provide a preferential transport pathway for DNAPLs from near surface to the underlying aquifer, with particularly high concentrations measured in the biopores themselves. Capillary rise experiments with coal tar distillate demonstrate that DNAPLs are drawn into biopores, with values of surface interfacial tension for the system calculated as 8 × 10⁻² J/m². Wicking by residual plant fibres was demonstrated qualitatively and is thought to be an important additional transport mechanism. The DNAPL contamination below and throughout the Severn alluvial clay–silt horizons demonstrates that the assumption that these horizons act as an effective seal protecting underlying aquifers from severe pollution from the legacy sites around the Severn is flawed and highlights the failure of current protocols for sampling of clay horizons for hydraulic conductivity assessments, since current methods can destroy delicate in situ biopore structures. The study demonstrates that the interplay between ecological and the geological depositional environment can, at a regional scale, result in a network of biopores that can potentially act as conduits for contaminant transport.