C.4 Study Question 4: When will contaminant concentrations reach a criterion?

This question, associated with projecting future contaminant concentrations, is closely related to Study Question 5 and Study Question 7 regarding trends and attenuation rates. The attenuation rate determined for a chemical in a monitoring well (or for a data set representative of a group of monitoring wells) is useful for understanding how quickly concentrations are changing over time. The attenuation rate, estimated from existing monitoring data, can be used to predict concentrations in the future. The methods used to estimate how long it would take to reach a criterionGeneral term used in this document to identify a groundwater concentration that is relevant to a project; used instead of designations such as Groundwater Protection Standard, clean-up standard, or clean-up level. could also be used to project concentrations at some future time.

This question is usually relevant in the remediation, monitoring, and closure stages of the project life cycle.

Selecting and Characterizing the Data Set                                                                            

Verify that the data set can support trend analyses and modeling. Refer to Section 3.4: Common Statistical Assumptions for further discussion of how the following requirements may impact statistical analysis results.

Statistical Methods and Tools for this Question

Estimating concentrations at a future time involves constructing a statistical model of chemical concentrations over time. Such models can reflect linear or nonlinear trends. These statistical models are closely related to attenuation rates and can be estimated by linear regression analysis (parametricA statistical test that depends upon or assumes observations from a particular probability distribution or distributions (Unified Guidance).) or a Theil-Sen trend line (nonparametricStatistical test that does not depend on knowledge of the distribution of the sampled population (Unified Guidance).).

Linear Regression

Theil-Sen Trend Line

Interpretation of Results and Associated Uncertainty 

Any prediction of future concentrations that is made using an attenuation rate estimated from past data implicitly relies on several assumptions. The key assumptions include:

For most sites, it is unlikely that these assumptions will be completely satisfied. For example, matrix diffusion effects may cause the attenuation to deviate from first order. In this case, the rangeThe difference between the largest value and smallest value in a dataset (NIST/SEMATECH 2012). of future concentrations or cleanup times calculated from the 95% confidence interval of the attenuation rate should not be considered a true 95% confidence interval for the prediction. Instead, the calculated future concentrations and cleanup times are reasonable estimates based on the available data. The predictions should be interpreted in the context of the complete conceptual site model (CSM)A living collection of information about a site which considers factors such as environmental and land use plans, site-specific chemical and geologic conditions, and the regulatory environment (ITRC 2007b)..

For any case where the 95% confidence interval for the attenuation rate includes zero (meaning the difference between the attenuation rate and zero is not statistically significant), any predictions made using the attenuation rate are highly uncertain.

See also Study Question 7,Section 4.5.1: Monitoring for Concentration Changes, Section 4.6.2: Trends Toward Compliance Criteriaand Section 5.9: Time Series Forecasting.

Related Study Questions                                                                                                      

Study Question 3: Are concentrations above or below a criterion?

Study Question 5:  Is there a trend in contaminant concentrations?

Study Question 7: What are the contaminant attenuation rates in wells?

Key Words: Cleanup Time, Concentration trends, Attenuation Rate, Remediation, Monitoring, Closure


Publication Date: December 2013

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