Fast Oxidation Processes in a Naturally Reduced Aquifer Zone Caused by Dissolved Oxygen
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
The occurrence of naturally reduced zones is quite common in alluvial aquifers in the western U.S.A. due to the burial of woody debris in flood plains. The naturally reduced zones are heterogeneously dispersed in such aquifers and are characterized by high concentrations of organic carbon and reduced phases, including iron sulfides and reduced forms of metals, including uranium(IV). The persistence of high concentrations of dissolved uranium(VI) at uranium-contaminated aquifers on the Colorado Plateau has been attributed to slow oxidation of insoluble uranium(IV) mineral phases that are found in association with these natural reducing zones, although there is little understanding of the relative importance of various potential oxidants. Three field experiments were conducted within an alluvial aquifer adjacent to the Colorado River near Rifle, CO wherein groundwater associated with naturally reduced zones was pumped into a gas-impermeable tank, mixed with a conservative tracer (Br-), bubbled with a gas phase composed of 97% O2 and 3% CO2, and then returned to the subsurface in the same well from which it was withdrawn. Within minutes of re-injection of the oxygenated groundwater, dissolved uranium(VI) concentrations increased from less than 1 µM to greater than 2.5 µM, demonstrating that oxygen can be an important oxidant for uranium in these field systems if supplied to the naturally reduced zones. Small concentrations of nitrate were also observed in the previously nitrate-free groundwater, and Fe(II) decreased to the detection limit. These results contrast with other laboratory and field results in which oxygen was introduced to systems containing high concentrations of mackinawite (FeS) rather than the more crystalline iron sulfides found in aged, naturally reduced zones. The flux of oxygen to the naturally reduced zones in the alluvial aquifers occurs mainly through interactions between groundwater and gas phases at the water table, and seasonal variations of the water table at the Rifle, CO site may play an important role in introducing oxygen into the system. Although oxygen was introduced directly to the naturally reduced zones in these experiments, delivery of oxidants to the system may normally be controlled by other oxidative pathways in which oxygen plays an indirect role.