A review of literature finds that advection, diffusion, and retardation are the main processes that govern the migration of organic contaminants through compacted clay landfill liners. However, much emphasis is placed on the hydraulic conductivity in the specification for landfill liner design. It is misunderstood that if the hydraulic conductivity of the clay is low, then the liner must provide an adequate barrier for groundwater pollution prevention. Unfortunately, even the advection is minimal, contaminants can migrate through clay by simple Fickian diffusion at a rate that can be significant.
The process of diffusion is mainly dependent on the concentration gradient between the leachate and the groundwater. If a clay lining system is installed, the only way to reduce the effect of diffusion is to reduce the concentration gradient by pollutant retardation. In this paper, the relative importance of molecular diffusion and advection, and the effect of pollutant retardation on the advective and diffusive transport are discussed using a conceptual-mathematical model. Based on a review of organic contaminant attenuation by clay liners, a guideline on the development of a high organic attenuation engineered barrier as a second line of defence for containment sites is proposed.