A mass balance approach to investigate arsenic cycling in a petroleum plume

Brady A. Ziegler, Madeline E. Schreiber, Isabelle M. Cozzarelli, G. H. Crystal Ng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Natural attenuation of organic contaminants in groundwater can give rise to a series of complex biogeochemical reactions that release secondary contaminants to groundwater. In a crude oil contaminated aquifer, biodegradation of petroleum hydrocarbons is coupled with the reduction of ferric iron (Fe(III)) hydroxides in aquifer sediments. As a result, naturally occurring arsenic (As) adsorbed to Fe(III) hydroxides in the aquifer sediment is mobilized from sediment into groundwater. However, Fe(III) in sediment of other zones of the aquifer has the capacity to attenuate dissolved As via resorption. In order to better evaluate how long-term biodegradation coupled with Fe-reduction and As mobilization can redistribute As mass in contaminated aquifer, we quantified mass partitioning of Fe and As in the aquifer based on field observation data. Results show that Fe and As are spatially correlated in both groundwater and aquifer sediments. Mass partitioning calculations demonstrate that 99.9% of Fe and 99.5% of As are associated with aquifer sediment. The sediments act as both sources and sinks for As, depending on the redox conditions in the aquifer. Calculations reveal that at least 78% of the original As in sediment near the oil has been mobilized into groundwater over the 35-year lifespan of the plume. However, the calculations also show that only a small percentage of As (∼0.5%) remains in groundwater, due to resorption onto sediment. At the leading edge of the plume, where groundwater is suboxic, sediments sequester Fe and As, causing As to accumulate to concentrations 5.6 times greater than background concentrations. Current As sinks can serve as future sources of As as the plume evolves over time. The mass balance approach used in this study can be applied to As cycling in other aquifers where groundwater As results from biodegradation of an organic carbon point source coupled with Fe reduction. Capsule Biodegradation of oil coupled with iron reduction results in the mobilization of sediment-bound arsenic to groundwater, though natural attenuation processes result in >99% of As remaining in sediment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1351-1361
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
StatePublished - Dec 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This project was supported by the USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program and the National Research Program. Additional funding was provided by a collaborative venture of the USGS, Enbridge Energy Limited Partnership , the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency , and Beltrami County, MN , the Virginia Water Resources Research Center , the American Association of Petroleum Geologists , and the Geological Society of America . Any use of trade, product, or firm names in this publication is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. A data-release product companion to this journal article ( Ziegler et al., 2017b ) contains all the data and metadata associated with this article and can be found at https://doi.org/10.5066/F7280648 .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Elsevier Ltd


  • Arsenic
  • Biodegradation
  • Iron
  • Mass distribution
  • Petroleum


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