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Republished from Theoretical and Applied Karstology, 2001, 13-14, 101-111. Open link

UIS KHS Commission
Contaminant transport in karst aquifers

Contaminants are easily injected into karst aquifers through sinking streams, sinkholes, or through open fractures and shafts in the carbonate rock. Transport of the contaminants through the aquifer is by a variety of mechanisms depending on the physical and chemical properties of the contaminant. Contaminants consist of (1) water soluble compounds, both organic and inorganic, (2) slightly soluble organic compounds, less dense than water (LNAPLs), (3) slightly soluble organic compounds, more dense than water (DNAPLs), (4) pathogens, (5) metals, and (6) trash. Water soluble compounds (e.g. nitrates, cyanides, carboxylic acids, phenols) move with the water. But rather than forming a plume spreading from the input point, the contaminated water forms linear stringers migrating down the conduit system toward the discharge point. LNAPLs (e.g. petroleum hydrocarbons) float on the water table and can migrate down the water table gradient to cave streams where they tend to pond behind obstructions. DNAPLs (e.g. chlorinated hydrocarbons), in contrast, sink to the bottom of the aquifer. In the conduit system, DNAPLs pond in low spots at the bottom of the conduit and infiltrate sediment piles. Transport of both LNAPL and DNAPL is dependent on storm flow which can force LNAPL through the system as plug flow and can move DNAPLs by mobilizing the sediment piles. Pathogens (viruses, bacteria, parasites) are transported through the karstic drainage system because of the absence of filtration and retain their activity for long distances. Metals (e.g. chromium, nickel, cadmium, mercury, and lead) tend to precipitate as hydroxides and carbonates in the neutral pH, carbonate rich water of the karst aquifer. Metal transport is mainly as particulates and as metal adsorbed onto small particulates such as clays and colloids. Metal transport is also episodic. Metals migrate down the flow path under flow conditions that take small particulates into suspension. Trash is carried into karst aquifers through sinkholes and sinking streams. It is, in effect, a form of clastic sediment, and can be carried deep into the conduit system where it can act as a source term for other contaminants leached from the trash