Speciation and natural attenuation of arsenic and iron in a tidally influenced shallow aquifer

Robert A. Root, Dimitri Vlassopoulos, Nelson A. Rivera, Michael T. Rafferty, Charles Andrews, Peggy A. O'Day

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

80 Scopus citations


The mobility of subsurface arsenic is controlled by sorption, precipitation, and dissolution processes that are tied directly to coupled redox reactions with more abundant, but spatially and temporally variable, iron and sulfur species. Adjacent to the site of a former pesticide manufacturing facility near San Francisco Bay (California, USA), soil and groundwater arsenic concentrations are elevated in sediments near the prior source, but decrease to background levels downgradient where shallow groundwater mixes with infiltrating tidal waters at the plume periphery, which has not migrated appreciably in over two decades of monitoring. We used synchrotron X-ray absorption spectroscopy, together with supporting characterizations and sequential chemical extractions, to directly determine the oxidation state of arsenic and iron as a function of depth in sediments from cores recovered from the unsaturated and saturated zones of a shallow aquifer (to 3.5 m below the surface). Arsenic oxidation state and local bonding in sediments, as As-sulfide, As(III)-oxide, or As(V)-oxide, were related to lithologic redox horizons and depth to groundwater. Based on arsenic and iron speciation, three subsurface zones were identified: (i) a shallow reduced zone in which sulfide phases were found in either the arsenic spectra (realgar-like or orpiment-like local structure), the iron spectra (presence of pyrite), or both, with and without As(III) or As(V) coordinated by oxygen; (ii) a middle transitional zone with mixed arsenic oxidation states (As(III)-O and As(V)-O) but no evidence for sulfide phases in either the arsenic or iron spectra; and (iii) a lower oxidized zone in the saturated freshwater aquifer in which sediments contained only oxidized As(V) and Fe(III) in labile (non-detrital) phases. The zone of transition between the presence and absence of sulfide phases corresponded to the approximate seasonal fluctuation in water level associated with shallow groundwater in the sand-dominated, lower oxic zone. Total sediment arsenic concentrations showed a minimum in the transition zone and an increase in the oxic zone, particularly in core samples nearest the former source. Equilibrium and reaction progress modeling of aqueous-sediment reactions in response to decreasing oxidation potential were used to illustrate the dynamics of arsenic uptake and release in the shallow subsurface. Arsenic attenuation was controlled by two mechanisms, precipitation as sulfide phases under sulfate-reducing conditions in the unsaturated zone, and adsorption of oxidized arsenic to iron hydroxide phases under oxidizing conditions in saturated groundwaters. This study demonstrates that both realgar-type and orpiment-type phases can form in sulfate-reducing sediments at ambient temperatures, with realgar predicted as the thermodynamically stable phase in the presence of pyrite and As(III) under more reduced conditions than orpiment. Field and modeling results indicate that the potential for release of arsenite to solution is maximized in the transition between sulfate-reduced and iron-oxidized conditions when concentrations of labile iron are low relative to arsenic, pH-controlled arsenic sorption is the primary attenuation mechanism, and mixed Fe(II,III)-oxide phases do not form and generate new sorption sites.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5528-5553
Number of pages26
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number19
StatePublished - Oct 1 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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