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Hydrologic balance, water quality, chemical-mass balance, and geochemical modeling of hyperalkaline ponds at Big Marsh, Chicago, Illinois, 2016–17

August 27, 2019

Hyperalkaline (pH greater than 12) ponds and groundwater exist at Big Marsh near Lake Calumet, Chicago, Illinois, a site used by the steel industry during the mid-1900s to deposit steel- and iron-making waste, in particular, slag. The hyperalkaline ponds may pose a hazard to human health and the environment. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in collaboration with the City of Chicago’s Park District, completed a study to evaluate the hydrologic balance, water quality, and chemical-mass balance of hyperalkaline ponds at Big Marsh and geochemical modeling used to evaluate remediation options for water quality at the site based on data collected in 2016–17.

Synoptic measurements of surface-water and groundwater elevations were used to determine flow directions and to enable a preliminary estimate of the hydrologic balance for the ponds. Water-quality samples also were collected and analyzed for selected constituents including major anions and cations, nutrients, metals, and trace elements. The results of the water-quality analyses were used to develop a geochemical model to evaluate concentrations, factors affecting pH, and the state of equilibrium between surface waters and atmospheric carbon dioxide. The geochemical model was used to evaluate remediation scenarios using riprap, spillways, or active aeration. The results indicate that active aeration will decrease the pH to near 7.5 in about 8 hours, the fastest rate of the scenarios. Passive aeration, such as riprap or spillways, also can be effective at decreasing the pH in about 45 hours, but spatial obstacles limit their implementation. Seasonal variations in temperature also affect the rate of equilibration, where colder temperatures may have a lower pH than warmer temperatures and may affect the timing and frequency of remediation.