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Remediation Technologies Screening Matrix, Version 4.0  
3.9 In Situ Biological Treatment for Ground Water, Surface Water, and Leachate
Table of Contents


The main advantage of in situ treatment is that it allows ground water to be treated without being brought to the surface, resulting in significant cost savings. In situ treatment, however, generally requires longer time periods, and there is less certainty about the uniformity of treatment because of the variability in aquifer characteristics and because the efficacy of the process is more difficult to verify.

Bioremediation techniques are destruction techniques directed toward stimulating the microorganisms to grow and use the contaminants as a food and energy source by creating a favorable environment for the microorganisms. Generally, this means providing some combination of oxygen, nutrients, and moisture, and controlling the temperature and pH. Sometimes, microorganisms adapted for degradation of the specific contaminants are applied to enhance the process.

Biological processes are typically implemented at low cost. Contaminants are destroyed and little to no residual treatment is required. Some compounds, however, may be broken down into more toxic by-products during the bioremediation process (e.g., TCE to vinyl chloride). In in situ applications, these by-products may be mobilized in ground water if no control techniques are used. Typically, to address this issue, bioremediation will be performed above a low permeability soil layer and with ground water monitoring wells downgradient of the remediation area. This type of treatment scheme requires aquifer and contaminant characterization and may still require extracted ground water treatment.

Although not all organic compounds are amenable to biodegradation, bioremediation techniques have been successfully used to remediate ground water contaminated by petroleum hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides, wood preservatives, and other organic chemicals. Bioremediation has no expected effect on inorganic contaminants.

The rate at which microorganisms degrade contaminants is influenced by the specific contaminants present; temperature; oxygen supply; nutrient supply; pH; the availability of the contaminant to the microorganism (clay soils can adsorb contaminants making them unavailable to the microorganisms); the concentration of the contaminants (high concentrations may be toxic to the microorganism); the presence of substances toxic to the microorganism, e.g., mercury; or inhibitors to the metabolism of the contaminant. These parameters are discussed in the following paragraphs.

To ensure that oxygen is supplied at a rate sufficient to maintain aerobic conditions, forced air, liquid oxygen, or hydrogen peroxide injection can be used. The use of hydrogen peroxide is limited because at high concentrations (above 100 ppm, 1,000 ppm with proper acclimation), it is toxic to microorganisms. Also, hydrogen peroxide tends to decompose into water and oxygen rapidly in the presence of some constituents, thus reducing its effectiveness.

Anaerobic conditions may be used to degrade highly chlorinated contaminants. This can be followed by aerobic treatment to complete biodegradation of the partially dechlorinated compounds as well as the other contaminants.

Nutrients required for cell growth are nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur, magnesium, calcium, manganese, iron, zinc, and copper. If nutrients are not available in sufficient amounts, microbial activity will stop. Nitrogen and phosphorous are the nutrients most likely to be deficient in the contaminated environment and thus are usually added to the bioremediation system in a useable form (e.g., as ammonium for nitrogen and as phosphate for phosphorous). Phosphates are suspected to cause soil plugging as a result of their reaction with minerals, such as iron and calcium. They form stable precipitates that fill the pores in the soil and aquifer.

pH affects the solubility, and consequently the availability, of many constituents of soil, which can affect biological activity. Many metals that are potentially toxic to microorganisms are insoluble at elevated pH; therefore, elevating the pH of the treatment system can reduce the risk of poisoning the microorganisms.

Temperature affects microbial activity in the environment. The biodegradation rate will slow with decreasing temperature; thus, in northern climates bioremediation may be ineffective during part of the year unless it is carried out in a climate-controlled facility. The microorganisms remain viable at temperatures below freezing and will resume activity when the temperature rises.

Provisions for heating the bioremediation site, such as use of warm air injection, may speed up the remediation process. Too high a temperature, however, can be detrimental to some microorganisms, essentially sterilizing the aquifer.

Temperature also affects nonbiological losses of contaminants mainly through the evaporation of contaminants at high temperatures. The solubility of contaminants typically increases with increasing temperature; however, some hydrocarbons are more soluble at low temperatures than at high temperatures. Additionally, oxygen solubility decreases with increasing temperature.

Bioaugmentation involves the use of cultures that have been specially bred for degradation of a variety of contaminants and sometimes for survival under unusually severe environmental conditions. Sometimes microorganisms from the remediation site are collected, separately cultured, and returned to the site as a means of rapidly increasing the microorganism population at the site. Usually an attempt is made to isolate and accelerate the growth of the population of natural microorganisms that preferentially feed on the contaminants at the site. In some situations different microorganisms may be added at different stages of the remediation process because the contaminants change in abundance as the degradation proceeds. USAF research, however, has found no evidence that the use of non-native microorganisms is beneficial in the situations tested.

Cometabolism, in which microorganisms growing on one compound produce an enzyme that chemically transforms another compound on which they cannot grow, has been observed to be useful. In particular, microorganisms that degrade methane (methanotrophic bacteria) have been found to produce enzymes that can initiate the oxidation of a variety of carbon compounds.

Treatability or feasibility studies may be performed to determine whether bioremediation would be effective in a given situation. The extent of the study can vary depending on the nature of the contaminants and the characteristics of the site. For sites contaminated with common petroleum hydrocarbons (e.g., gasoline and/or other readily degradable compounds), it is usually sufficient to examine representative samples for the presence and level of an indigenous population of microbes, nutrient levels, presence of microbial toxicants, and aquifer characteristics.

Available in situ biological treatment technologies include enhanced biodegradation (nitrate and oxygen enhancement with either air sparging or hydrogen peroxide (H2O2)), natural attenuation, and phytoremediation of organics. These technologies are discussed in Section 4. Completed in situ biological treatment projects for ground water, surface water, and leachate are shown in Table 3-12 and additional information on completed demonstration projects are shown on the FRTR Web Site.

Implementation of biological treatment in vadose zone soils differs from that of soils below the water table largely in the mechanism of adding required supplemental materials, such as oxygen and nutrients. For saturated soils, nutrients may be added with and carried by reinjected ground water. Oxygen can be provided by sparging or by adding chemical oxygen sources such as hydrogen peroxide. Surface irrigation may be used for vadose zone soils. Bioventing oxygenates vadose zone soils by drawing air through soils using a network of vertical wells.

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