Microbiological activity and organic pollutant fate and transport in sediments and sediment caps



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Contaminated surficial sediments represent a potential point of entry into the food web for environmental pollutants that are toxic to fish, wildlife, and humans. One approach for managing polluted sediments is in situ capping, the placement of clean fill material, such as sand, atop the polluted sediments. A cap stabilizes the underlying sediment and physically separates pollutants from benthic organisms that inhabit the sediment/water interface. Additionally, a sediment cap can be amended with sorbents to sequester hydrophobic organic chemicals. While the physical processes affecting contaminant transport in sediment caps are readily modeled, fate and transport processes mediated by sediment bacteria are location-specific and thus highly uncertain.

Laboratory bench-scale tests were employed to aid in the design of a sediment cap in Onondaga Lake. Recognizing the importance of bacterial activity beneath the benthic zone for affecting the risks of contaminant exposure, anaerobic processes were emphasized. A combination of batch and column tests were used to determine whether (1) bacteria in sediments were capable of biotransforming methylated and chlorinated benzenes, (2) the ability to biotransform the contaminants of interest would be translated from the sediments to a sand cap, (3) the rate of biogenic gas production in sediments would threaten the integrity of a sand cap, and (4) the contribution of gas-phase contaminant transport to the overall transport of contaminants from the sediments was significant.

The apparent anaerobic biotransformation of toluene in a sand cap was supported by detection of a genetic biomarker for anaerobic toluene degradation, the development of substantial biomass in the sand column, apparent anaerobic biotransformation of toluene in sediment slurries, and the concomitant reduction of iron in the sand column. The dissimilarity in bacterial community composition between sediment and sand cap samples suggests that contaminant biotransformation capability cannot be predicted from community analysis. For sediments that failed to demonstrate biotransformation potential, amending a sand column with organophilic clay proved effective at retarding transport of the contaminants of interest.

This work advances methods for characterizing bacterial processes in sediments and demonstrates the potential for anaerobic biotransformation of organic contaminants in sand caps.