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Pathways for arsenic from sediments to groundwater to streams: Biogeochemical processes in the Inner Coastal Plain, New Jersey, USA

September 28, 2011

The Cretaceous and Tertiary sediments that underlie the Inner Coastal Plain of New Jersey contain the arsenic-rich mineral glauconite. Streambed sediments in two Inner Coastal Plain streams (Crosswicks and Raccoon Creeks) that traverse these glauconitic deposits are enriched in arsenic (15–25 mg/kg), and groundwater discharging to the streams contains elevated levels of arsenic (>80 μg/L at a site on Crosswicks Creek) with arsenite generally the dominant species. Low dissolved oxygen, low or undetectable levels of nitrate and sulfate, detectable sulfide concentrations, and high concentrations of iron and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in the groundwater indicate that reducing environments are present beneath the streambeds and that microbial activity, fueled by the DOC, is involved in releasing arsenic and iron from the geologic materials. In groundwater with the highest arsenic concentrations at Crosswicks Creek, arsenic respiratory reductase gene (arrA) indicated the presence of arsenic-reducing microbes. From extracted DNA, 16s rRNA gene sequences indicate the microbial community may include arsenic-reducing bacteria that have not yet been described. Once in the stream, iron is oxidized and precipitates as hydroxide coatings on the sediments. Arsenite also is oxidized and co-precipitates with or is sorbed to the iron hydroxides. Consequently, dissolved arsenic concentrations are lower in streamwater than in the groundwater, but the arsenic contributed by groundwater becomes part of the arsenic load in the stream when sediments are suspended during high flow. A strong positive relation between concentrations of arsenic and DOC in the groundwater samples indicates that any process—natural or anthropogenic—that increases the organic carbon concentration in the groundwater could stimulate microbial activity and thus increase the amount of arsenic that is released from the geologic materials.