MTBE, TBA, and TAME Attenuation in Diverse Hyporheic Zones


U.S. Geological Survey, South Carolina Water Science Center, 720 Gracern Road, Suite 129, Columbia, SC 29210; (803) 750-6128; fax (803) 750-6181;


Groundwater contamination by fuel-related compounds such as the fuel oxygenates methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), tert-butyl alcohol (TBA), and tert-amyl methyl ether (TAME) presents a significant issue to managers and consumers of groundwater and surface water that receives groundwater discharge. Four sites were investigated on Long Island, New York, characterized by groundwater contaminated with gasoline and fuel oxygenates that ultimately discharge to fresh, brackish, or saline surface water. For each site, contaminated groundwater discharge zones were delineated using pore water geochemistry data from 15 feet (4.5 m) beneath the bottom of the surface water body in the hyporheic zone and seepage-meter tests were conducted to measure discharge rates. These data when combined indicate that MTBE, TBA, and TAME concentrations in groundwater discharge in a 5-foot (1.5-m) thick section of the hyporheic zone were attenuated between 34% and 95%, in contrast to immeasurable attenuation in the shallow aquifer during contaminant transport between 0.1 and 1.5 miles (0.1 to 2.4 km). The attenuation observed in the hyporheic zone occurred primarily by physical processes such as mixing of groundwater and surface water. Biodegradation also occurred as confirmed in laboratory microcosms by the mineralization of U- 14C-MTBE and U-14C-TBA to 14CO2 and the novel biodegradation of U- 14C-TAME to 14CO2 under oxic and anoxic conditions. The implication of fuel oxygenate attenuation observed in diverse hyporheic zones suggests an assessment of the hyporheic zone attenuation potential (HZAP) merits inclusion as part of site assessment strategies associated with monitored or engineered attenuation.