Hazardous Waste Program fact sheet
Division of Environmental Quality Director: Leanne Tippett Mosby

The chemical, physical and biological processes involved in natural attenuation of environmental contaminations are rapidly becoming better understood. With this greater understanding, interests growing in the use of monitored natural attenuation as a remedy of choice in treating groundwater at sites contaminated with hazardous substances.

This fact sheet provides guidance on the use of monitored natural attenuation to participants in the department’s Brownfields/Voluntary Cleanup Program (BVCP) conducting remediation pursuant to 10 CSR 25-15.010.

While many aspects of this guidance may also apply to sites being addressed under the oversight of other departmental regulatory programs, it is currently intended for use only by BVCP participants. Those working with other regulatory programs should check with representatives of those programs prior to using this guidance.

What is Monitored Natural Attenuation?

The term monitored natural attenuation as used in this fact sheet refers to the reliance on natural processes to achieve groundwater cleanup goals within a reasonable time frame. These include chemical, physical, and biological processes that act to reduce the mass, volume, mobility, toxicity, or concentration of groundwater contaminants.

Other terms sometimes associated with natural attenuation include passive remediation or bioremediation, intrinsic remediation or bioremediation, reductive dehalogenation, and natural assimilation. However, many of these terms refer only to specific aspects of the natural attenuation process. For the purposes of this fact sheet, the term monitored natural attenuation will be used to encompass all aspects of the natural attenuation process.

Most aquifers have a built-in capacity for biodegradation, dispersion, volatilization, sorption and other processes that affect groundwater contaminants. Used as remediation, monitored natural attenuation is a demonstration that this built-in capacity will reduce contaminant levels within a reasonable time frame and before the contaminants present an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment, or exceed approved cleanup levels at established points of compliance.

The effectiveness of monitored natural attenuation has been clearly and routinely documented at petroleum contaminated sites. But it may also be an important factor at sites contaminated with chlorinated solvents, inorganics including metals and radionuclides, and mixtures of these contaminants.

Not a Do Nothing Approach
The monitored aspect of monitored natural attenuation refers to the fact that extensive sampling and modeling efforts are typically needed to demonstrate that natural attenuation will be sufficient to meet site cleanup goals. In this regard, it is important to recognize that monitored natural attenuation is not a “no action” alternative. Further, some form of source control measures is almost always necessary at sites with groundwater contamination.

Monitored natural attenuation is often used as a complementary technique along with more active remedial measures. The most typical example is that of a site where active remediation is applied in high concentration areas of a plume, while monitored natural attenuation is used in low concentration areas or as a follow-up to active remedial measures.

Pros and Cons of Monitored Natural Attenuation
When evaluating remedial measures, the potential advantages and disadvantages of monitored natural attenuation relative to other options should be carefully considered before selecting the most appropriate measures. Generally, monitored natural attenuation should be selected only where it will meet the approved cleanup objectives within a time frame that is reasonable compared to that offered by other methods. Sites where the contaminant plume is no longer expanding, or is shrinking, will be the most appropriate candidates for the use of monitored natural attenuation remedies. 

Advantages of Monitored Natural Attenuation:

Disadvantages of Monitored Natural Attenuation:

Implementation of Monitored Natural Attenuation
The following guidance is based on the department’s experience with the use of monitored natural attenuation at BVCP sites. 

Source Removal
Treatment and control of contaminant sources should be evaluated at all BVCP sites. This is especially true at sites where monitored natural attenuation is being considered. Contaminant sources that are not addressed may continue to leach at significant levels into groundwater.

Since monitored natural attenuation typically involves a longer time frame than other more active remedial approaches, such persistent source areas may unacceptably extend the time needed for monitored natural attenuation to achieve approved cleanup goals. The BVCP expects that source control or treatment measures will be evaluated at all sites, and that measures will be taken at most sites employing monitored natural attenuation as part of the remedy. Measures for addressing contaminant sources are numerous, but some of those most commonly used at BVCP sites include

Demonstrating Effectiveness
Demonstrating the efficacy of monitored natural attenuation will typically be an iterative process that includes full and detailed characterization of the site, development of a conceptual model, and an analysis to determine whether monitored natural attenuation will be sufficient to achieve cleanup goals. Demonstrating the effectiveness of natural attenuation usually requires a higher level of site characterization than that needed to support more active remedial measures.

Similarly, sites with contaminants that do not tend to readily biodegrade will usually require a relatively higher level of site characterization than those with more biodegradable contaminants.

The extent of investigation necessary to adequately characterize a site is highly site specific and will depend on the nature of contamination, hydrogeologic complexity, proximity of receptors, and other factors. 

Site Characterization
In general, site characterization should include the collection of data in three spatial dimensions over time such that an adequate understanding can be gained of the nature and distribution of both the contaminant source areas and the groundwater plume. Site characterization should provide information on hydrogeologic parameters such as hydraulic conductivity, hydraulic gradients, and potential migration pathways to human and ecological receptors; geologic information on the nature and distribution of subsurface materials; groundwater geochemical data; and information on the location, extent, and concentration of dissolved contaminants.

The number and location of sampling points required to achieve this understanding will be established site specifically with BVCP input and approval. The minimum for most sites will include an upgradient well, at least one transect of wells screened within the longitudinal axis of the plume, and one transect screened within the transverse axis of the plume as shown below. 

Generalized Monitoring Well Network

Groundwater investigation must include sampling and analysis for the contaminants of interest, their daughter products, and other indicators important for demonstrating natural attenuation.

These may include hydrogen, methane, ethane, ethene, oxygen, redox potential, pH, conductivity, organic carbon, iron, manganese, chloride, nitrate, sulfate, hydrogen sulfide, alkalinity and others. The specific analytes and frequency of monitoring required will be determined site specifically, and may be reduced following an initial period of monitoring with the approval of the BVCP. 

Conceptual Model
The site characterization data should be integrated into a conceptual model of the site. This is a three dimensional representation that integrates information on hydrogeologic conditions and the sources, fate, and transport of contaminants. The conceptual model will provide a framework for assessing remedial options (including monitored natural attenuation), and will address how monitored natural attenuation processes will perform to meet cleanup goals. The formation of a conceptual model should begin early in the site characterization process, and be continually refined as new data are available.

Using the conceptual model along with site characterization data, the potential efficacy of monitored natural attenuation as a remedy can be evaluated. The two primary lines of evidence used to evaluate monitored natural attenuation are:

Monitored Natural Attenuation Screening
The BVCP recommends evaluating initial site characterization data using a screening approach to make a preliminary determination of whether further assessment of monitored natural attenuation as a remedy is warranted. The screening analysis should:

  1. Determine whether geochemical and hydrogeologic conditions are favorable for natural attenuation of the contaminants
  2. Estimate the rate of contaminant attenuation;
  3. Estimate the rate of contaminant migration compared to the estimated rate of attenuation; and
  4. Determine whether the predicted rate of attenuation will meet the cleanup goal in a reasonable time frame and without unacceptable risk to human health and the environment.

Simple analytic computer models may be useful in developing preliminary estimates of contaminant migration and attenuation over time. Examples of these models include BIOCHLOR and BIOSCREEN, which are available at

These models are fairly limited in application due to the simplifications required to limit their input data requirements and thereby make them comparatively easy to use in some cases. It may be necessary to also employ more complex numerical models in order to better account for site complexity and improve estimates of attenuation rates.

If results of the site screening are favorable, a more detailed site characterization and refinement of the conceptual model may be necessary to fill in data gaps and reduce uncertainty in the initial predictions of contaminant attenuation rates. The estimate of contaminant biodegradation/ attenuation rate is a critical component of determining whether monitored natural attenuation will be an adequate remedy. There are several methods for developing estimates of contaminant biodegradation and attenuation rates. These methods require varying degrees of site characterization, and produce estimates of varying accuracy depending on the specific site conditions. The BVCP strongly recommends that several techniques be used together and the results compared to develop a better overall estimate.

It is important to note that groundwater in certain areas of Missouri occurs in complex geologic systems that may preclude reliance on a monitored natural attenuation remedy. The typical example is groundwater moving through highly fractured or karstic rock aquifers. In these systems, the cost of monitoring required to adequately identify preferential contaminant flow pathways and estimate rates of natural attenuation could easily exceed the costs of implementing other more active remediation techniques. 

Performance Monitoring
If monitored natural attenuation is implemented at a site, monitoring to evaluate its effectiveness and ensure the protection of human health and the environment is critical. Performance monitoring is even more important for monitored natural attenuation than other types of remedies due to the typically longer timeframes and greater uncertainties associated with monitored natural attenuation. A performance monitoring program will be an integral part of all approved monitored natural attenuation remedies.

The monitoring program should be designed to accomplish the following:

Monitoring wells in this program include, but are not necessarily limited to, those placed to measure changes in the nature of the plume, and sentinel wells strategically placed to detect migration of contaminants outside an acceptable predicted area.

The frequency of performance monitoring and the monitoring parameters is typically determined on a site-specific basis. Performance monitoring should continue until the cleanup goals are achieved. 

Contingency Planning
An approved plan for the use of monitored natural attenuation will include contingency planning provisions. Contingency planning includes specification of measures to be taken that will function as a back-up in the event that monitored natural attenuation fails to perform as anticipated. These measures may specify an intensification of monitoring activities, active enhancement of monitored natural attenuation processes, use of engineered barriers, or employment of remedial techniques entirely different from monitored natural attenuation, among many others.

The BVCP recommends that one or more trigger criteria be established that will serve to signal unacceptable performance of monitored natural attenuation and indicate when the contingency measures should be implemented. Examples of such triggers include but are not limited to:

Presentation of Data
It is the responsibility of the BVCP participant to not only provide the data necessary to demonstrate the efficacy of monitored natural attenuation, but to analyze, interpret and present that data in a manner that facilitates the BVCP’s approval process.

The Missouri Risk Based Corrective Action (MRBCA) guidance document provides a list of the basic report components. The following is not intended as an inclusive list, but rather highlights some additional components necessary at most sites to support a demonstration of monitored natural attenuation.

Obtaining Site Closure
The conditions for obtaining closure of a site within the BVCP using monitored natural attenuation to address groundwater contamination vary depending on whether the plume is contained within or extends beyond the BVCP site boundaries. The following discussion presuppose that all other relevant criteria regarding monitored natural attenuation as discussed above have been met.

Plume is contained within the BVCP site boundaries.

For more information
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Hazardous Waste Program
P.O. Box 176
Jefferson City, MO 65102-0176
1-800-361-4827 or 573- 526-8913 office
573- 526-4817 fax