The Sentinel Bluffs Member is the youngest unit of the Grande Ronde Basalt, having typical physical characteristics of most large-volume Columbia River Basalt Group (CRBG) sheet flows. These flows have been studied for over 50 years, resulting in numerous scientific publications from academic institutions, federal and state regional mapping projects, more detailed mapping associated with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (USDOE) Hanford Site (southeastern Washington State), and borehole investigations focused in part on petroleum exploration in the Columbia Basin. The compositional heterogeneity of individual flows, although small, has been interpreted by many workers as being the result of magma chamber processes (e.g., Wright et al., 1973; Wright and Swanson, 1980; Mangan et al., 1986; Hooper, 2000; Reidel, 2005) combined in places with surficial mixing as the flows are emplaced (e.g., Reidel and Tolan, 2013). Sawlan (2018) argues instead that flow heterogeneity in the Sentinel Bluffs Member is largely the result of previously unrecognized chemical alteration of basalt in contact with aquifers, accompanied by significant mass loss (up to 50%). The fact that nearly all CRBG lava flows are in contact with the confined aquifer system, even those in the anticlinal ridges, suggests that such alteration, if it existed, could be widespread.
The ramifications of widespread, hitherto undocumented alteration are compelling, in part because of the ambiguity such alteration would place on previous interpretations that rely on high-quality chemical data. Such data could be queried as problematic or invalid in a variety of studies that focus, for example, on chemostratigraphic correlations (e.g., Reidel, 2005; Conrey and Wolff, 2010; Vye-Brown et al., 2013; Martin et al., 2013; Wells et al., 2009) or on petrogenesis and evolution of the basalts (e.g., Davis et al., 2017; Blake et al., 2010; Martin, 1989; Wolff et al., 2008; Wolff and Ramos, 2013; Ramos et al., 2005, 2009, 2013; Tollstrup et al., 2002; Hooper, 1984; Hooper and Hawkesworth, 1993; Rodriguez and Sen, 2013; Thordarson and Self, 1998), as well as in paleomagnetic studies where the results are extremely sensitive to alteration especially in the case of iron minerals (e.g., magnetite, hematite) and rely on compositional data for flow identification (e.g., Wells et al., 1989; Hagstrum et al., 2010).
Consideration and scrutiny of the Sawlan (2018) study is both timely and relevant to workers on the CRBG, but it is also pertinent to workers on other basalt provinces where aquifers are present (e.g., Hawaii, the Snake River Plain [Idaho], and the Oregon High Lava Plains). We therefore embrace debate on the potential role of these aquifers in modifying primary magmatic compositions. It is our contention that careful sample collection of the CRBG has generated largely unaltered chemical compositions, and that the alteration hypothesis of Sawlan (2018) is incorrect due to flawed methodology. As a contribution to this debate, we (1) examine long-established procedures and sampling techniques that have allowed workers to avoid significant alteration when collecting and analyzing CRBG flows; (2) describe data collection of the Sentinel Bluffs Member and chemical variations that have been attributed to both magmatic processes and secondary alteration; and (3) discuss the concerns we have on the rationale and analytical methodology that form the basis for Sawlan’s (2018) conclusions that compositional variations in the Sentinel Bluff Member are the result of chemical alteration from basalt-water interaction.