Enhanced attenuation of septic system phosphate in noncalcareous sediments

Ground Water. Jan-Feb 2003;41(1):48-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6584.2003.tb02567.x.


Review of phosphate behavior in four mature septic system plumes on similar textured sand has revealed a strong correlation between carbonate mineral content and phosphate concentrations. A plume on calcareous sand (Cambridge site, 27 wt % CaCO3 equiv.) has proximal zone PO4 concentrations (4.8 mg/L P average) that are about 75% of the septic tank effluent value, whereas three plumes on noncalcareous sand (Muskoka, L. Joseph, and Nobel sites, <1 wt % CaCO3 equiv.) have proximal zone phosphate concentrations (<0.1 mg/L P) that are consistently less than 2% of the effluent values. Phosphate attenuation at the noncalcareous sites appears to be an indirect result of the development of acidic conditions (site average pH 3.5 to 5.9) and elevated Al concentrations (up to 24 mg/L), which subsequently causes the precipitation of Al-P minerals such as variscite (AlPO4 x 2H2O). This is supported by scanning electron microscope analyses, which show the widespread occurrence of (Al+P)--rich secondary mineral coatings on sand grains below the infiltration beds. All of these septic systems are more than 10 years old, indicating that these attenuation reactions have substantial longevity. A field lysimeter experiment demonstrated that this reaction sequence can be readily incorporated into engineered waste water treatment systems. We feel this important P removal mechanism has not been adequately recognized, particularly for its potential significance in reducing P loading from septic systems in lakeshore environments.

MeSH terms

  • Aluminum / chemistry
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Geologic Sediments / chemistry*
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Phosphates / analysis
  • Phosphates / chemistry*
  • Silicon Dioxide
  • Waste Disposal, Fluid*
  • Water Movements


  • Phosphates
  • Silicon Dioxide
  • Aluminum