Natural attenuation/phytoremediation in the vadose zone of a former industrial sludge basin

Research paper by Paul É. Olson, John S. Flechter, Paul R. Philp

Indexed on: 01 Jul '01Published on: 01 Jul '01Published in: Environmental Science and Pollution Research


The natural attenuation of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the vadose zone of a naturally revegetated former industrial sludge basin (0.45 ha) was examined. This was accomplished by comparing the concentration of 16 PAH contaminants present in sludge collected below the root zone of plants with contaminants present at 3 shallower depths within the root zone. Chemical analysis of 240 samples from 60 cores showed the average concentration of total and individual PAHs in the 0–30 cm, 30–60 cm, and bottom of the root zone strata were approximately 10, 20, and 50%, respectively, of the 16, 800 ppm average total PAH concentration in deep non-rooted sludge. Statistically significant differences in average PAH concentrations were observed between each strata studied and the non-rooted sludge except for the concentrations of acenaphthene and chrysene present at the bottom of the root zone in comparison to sludge values. The rooting depth of the vegetation growing in the basin was dependent on both vegetation type and plant age. Average rooting depths for trees, forbs (herbaceous non-grasses), and grasses were 90, 60, and 50 cm, respectively. The deepest root systems observed (100–120 cm) were associated with the oldest (12–14 year-old) mulberry trees. Examination of root systems and PAH concentrations at numerous locations and depths within the basin indicated that plant roots and their microbially active rhizospheres fostered PAH disappearance; including water insoluble, low volatility compounds, i.e. benzo(a)pyrene and benzo(ghi)perylene. The reduced concentration of PAHs in the upper strata of this revegetated former sludge basin indicated that natural attenuation had occurred. This observation supports the concept that through appropriate planting and management practices (phytoremediation) it will be possible to accelerate, maximize, and sustain natural processes, whereby even the most recalcitrant PAH contaminants (i.e. benzo(a)pyrene) can be remediated over time.