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Field-scale sulfur hexafluoride tracer experiment to understand long distance gas transport in the deep unsaturated zone

April 24, 2014

A gas-tracer test in a deep arid unsaturated zone demonstrates that standard estimates of effective diffusivity from sediment properties allow a reasonable first-cut assessment of gas contaminant transport. Apparent anomalies in historic transport behavior at this and other waste disposal sites may result from factors other than nonreactive gas transport properties.

A natural gradient SF6 tracer experiment provided an unprecedented evaluation of long distance gas transport in the deep unsaturated zone (UZ) under controlled (known) conditions. The field-scale gas tracer test in the 110-m-thick UZ was conducted at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Amargosa Desert Research Site (ADRS) in southwestern Nevada. A history of anomalous (theoretically unexpected) contaminant gas transport observed at the ADRS, next to the first commercial low-level radioactive waste disposal facility in the United States, provided motivation for the SF6 tracer study. Tracer was injected into a deep UZ borehole at depths of 15 and 48 m, and plume migration was observed in a monitoring borehole 9 m away at various depths (0.5–109 m) over the course of 1 yr. Tracer results yielded useful information about gas transport as applicable to the spatial scales of interest for off-site contaminant transport in arid unsaturated zones. Modeling gas diffusion with standard empirical expressions reasonably explained SF6 plume migration, but tended to underpredict peak concentrations for the field-scale experiment given previously determined porosity information. Despite some discrepancies between observations and model results, rapid SF6 gas transport commensurate with previous contaminant migration was not observed. The results provide ancillary support for the concept that apparent anomalies in historic transport behavior at the ADRS are the result of factors other than nonreactive gas transport properties or processes currently in effect in the undisturbed UZ.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2014
Title Field-scale sulfur hexafluoride tracer experiment to understand long distance gas transport in the deep unsaturated zone
DOI 10.2136/vzj2014.04.0045
Authors Michelle Ann Walvoord, Brian J. Andraski, Christopher T. Green, David A. Stonestrom, Robert G. Striegl
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Vadose Zone Journal
Series Number
Index ID 70170468
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Nevada Water Science Center