Mesocosm trials of bioremediation of contaminated soil of a petroleum refinery: comparison of natural attenuation, biostimulation and bioaugmentation

M Nazaré P F S Couto, Emanuela Monteiro, M Teresa S D Vasconcelos
Environmental Science and Pollution Research International 2010, 17 (7): 1339-46

PURPOSE: Contamination with petroleum hydrocarbons (PHC) is a global problem with environmental implications. Physico-chemical treatments can be used for soil cleanup, but they are expensive, and can have implications for soil structure and environment. Otherwise, biological remediation treatments are cost-effective and restore soil structure. Several remediation experiments have been carried out in the lab and in the field; however, there is the challenge to achieve as good or better results in the field as in the laboratory. In the ambit of a project aiming at investigating suitable biological remediation approaches for recovering a refinery contaminated soil, we present here results obtained in bioremediation trials. The approaches biostimulation and bioaugmentation were tested, in parallel, and compared with natural attenuation. For this purpose, mesocosm experiments were carried out inside the refinery area, which constitutes a real asset of this work.

METHODS: Soil contaminated with crude oil was excavated, re-contaminated with turbine oil, homogenised and used to fill several 0.5 m(3) high-density polyethylene containers. The efficiency of procedures as follows: (1) natural attenuation; (2) manual aeration; (3) biostimulation by adding (3.1) only nutrients; and (3.2) nutrients and a non-ionic surfactant; and (4) bioaugmentation in the presence of added (4.1) nutrients or (4.2) nutrients and a non-ionic surfactant were evaluated after a 9-month period of experiment. For bioaugmentation, a commercial bacterial product was used. In addition to physico-chemical characterization, initial and final soil contents in total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) (by Fourier transform infrared spectrophotometry) and the total number of bacteria (by total cell counts) were carried out. For TPH degradation evaluation the soil was divided in four fractions corresponding to different depths: 0-5; 5-10; 10-15; and 15-20 cm. Mean values of percentages of PHC degradation varied between 20 and 50% at surface and between 10 and 35% below 5-cm depth. Natural attenuation was as efficient as most of the tested treatments (about 30% TPH degradation) being exceeded only by bioaugmentation combined with nutrient and surfactant amendments (about 50% TPH degradation). Higher TPH degradation at surface suggests that a combination of sufficient dioxygen, propitious for aerobically degradation, with sunlight required for production of strong photochemical oxidants like ozone, contributed for enhancing degradation. Indeed, the atmosphere of the refineries is relatively rich in volatile organic compounds and nitrogen dioxide (a side-product of the combustion of residual volatile PHC released by the chimneys), which are precursors of O(3) and other photochemical oxidants produced in sunny days, which are very common in Portugal. The fact that natural attenuation was as efficient as most of the soil treatments tested was very probably a result of the presence, in the initial soil, of physiologically adapted native microorganisms, which could be efficient in degrading PHC.

CONCLUSIONS: A cost-effective way to reduce half-life for the degradation of PHC of contaminated soil of the refinery will be a periodic revolving of the soil, like tillage, in order to expose to the oxidative atmosphere the different layers of contaminated soil. A combination of soil revolving with bioaugmentation together with nutrients and surfactant amendments may result in an additional improvement of PHC degradation rate. However, this last procedure will raise markedly the price of the remediation treatment.

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