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Long‐Term Groundwater Monitoring Results at Large, Sudden Denatured Ethanol Releases

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Hundreds of groundwater samples were collected at E95 (95% ethanol, 5% gasoline) train derailment spills in Balaton and Cambria, Minnesota and South Hutchinson, Kansas. Most samples were analyzed for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (BTEX), ethanol, methane, acetate, terminal electron acceptors, and field parameters. At each site, maximum groundwater ethanol concentrations at percent levels were restricted to the release area and downgradient ethanol transport was not detected. A shallow, anaerobic groundwater zone characterized by the absence of dissolved oxygen, low nitrate (less than 1 mg N/L), high Fe+2, and high dissolved methane (more than 10,000 μg/L) and BTEX formed and spread downgradient from each release area. BTEX appeared to be persistent. Methane appeared to be generated within the capillary fringe and very shallow groundwater and migrate laterally. Methane's high oxygen demand promotes anaerobic conditions within the shallow groundwater. Estimated and measured methane soil gas concentrations exceeded the lower explosive limit. Long‐term monitoring at South Hutchinson and Cambria using 1 to 5‐foot (0.3 to 1.5 m) well screens straddling the capillary fringe and the shallow water table effectively demonstrated the presence of high ethanol (∼1%) and benzene (more than 250 μg/L) concentrations 5 years after the release. The wells appear impacted by long‐term ethanol inputs from the vadose zone where ethanol has persisted for years after the initial release. Toxicity, volatile fatty acids, excess hydrogen production, and/or exudate coatings could be responsible for ethanol's preservation. High acetate and hydrogen concentrations at South Hutchinson indicated that fermentation was actively occurring in the very shallow groundwater and/or in the lower capillary fringe. Short‐screened (1 to 5 feet; 0.3 to 1.5 m) nested wells were pivotal to improving our understanding of ethanol's behavior.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: August 1, 2011

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