Model-based decision making is commonly used in performance assessments to assure water resource protection for both human health and the environment for hundreds of years into the future. To make decisions regarding aquifer protection against potential contamination, a conceptual site model (CSM) describing the hydrodynamic behavior needs to account for subsurface heterogeneities in sufficient detail. When site-specific data are sparse, larger-scale geologic descriptions are adopted with the consequence of losing small-scale features (at the cm scale) that can control contaminant transport. In this study, a multiple lines of evidence approach is used to construct vadose zone CSMs based on an evaluation of several types of data, including geologic logs, borehole moisture content and concentration data, geophysical spectral gamma logging data, and groundwater concentration data for a tank farm at the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington State. The resulting CSMs of the unsaturated zone represent a synthesis of what is known about flow and transport processes at the site-scale and maintain consistency with knowledge that has been accumulated at the regional scale. Through a process of extensive data analyses, a systematic approach is described to create an evidence base that supports the evaluation and development of CSMs. Numerical models are then used to evaluate the impact that smaller-scale heterogeneities have on contaminant transport through the vadose zone for a performance assessment on waste tank closure. Together, the field data and the numerical experiments suggest that although small-scale features close to source releases can have an impact on horizontal spreading, overall there is a relatively minor impact on transport for the site under study as evaluated by differences in peak fluxes and arrival times for historical leak events, and for potential releases resulting from waste tank closure. Use of alternative CSMs, developed through careful examination of available characterization and monitoring data, provides confidence that geologic heterogeneities do not impact contaminant transport behavior significantly enough to alter the assessment of risk for closure at this site.
Keywords: Conceptual site model; Contaminant flow and transport; Multiple lines of evidence; Numerical modeling; Vadose zone.
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