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Transport and Attenuation of Microbial Tracers and Effluent Microorganisms in Saturated Pumice Sand Aquifer Material

Abstract

Land disposal of treated human and animal effluent through pumice sand soils is a common practice around Rotorua, in the central North Island of New Zealand. There is increasing concern about the possibility of contamination of shallow pumice sand aquifers associated with this practice. In this study, we investigated the transport and attenuation of F-RNA bacteriophages and Escherichia coli in saturated pumice sand aquifer media using a field tracing experiment, and laboratory batch and column studies. The influence of dissolved organic carbon on microbial transport was also investigated by conditioning the 18 cm-long column with ultrafiltered sewage. The CXTFIT curve-fitting program was used to model the experimental data and to determine transport and attenuation parameters. Batch studies showed more than 90% adsorption of both microbial indicators onto pumice sand. High mass removal of microbial indicators was shown in the field (>99% for phage MS2 and E. coli at 2 m down gradient of the injection well; not detected at 6 m) and in the ‘clean sand’ column (65% for phage MS2 and 90% or E. coli). These results suggest that uncontaminated pumice is an effective sorbent capable of retaining microbial contaminants due to high surface area and porosity. However, in the column, with additional dissolved organic carbon, phages showed a progressive reduction in mass removal and retardation between experiments (93%, 75%, and 63% removal; retardation factor: 3.5, 2.5 and 1.2). This suggests that the organic matter competed with phages for the sorption sites, thus promoting phage transport. As a result, viral transport rates may be significantly greater in contaminated compared with uncontaminated pumice sand aquifers.

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