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Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5140

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Hydrogeologic Characterization and Assessment of Bioremediation of Chlorinated Benzenes and Benzene in Wetland Areas, Standard Chlorine of Delaware, Inc. Superfund Site, New Castle County, Delaware, 2009–12

By Michelle M. Lorah, Charles W. Walker, Anna C. Baker, Jessica A. Teunis, Emily H. Majcher, Michael J. Brayton, Jeff P. Raffensperger, and Isabelle M. Cozzarelli

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (3.16 MB)Abstract

Wetlands at the Standard Chlorine of Delaware, Inc. Superfund Site (SCD) in New Castle County, Delaware, are affected by contamination with chlorobenzenes and benzene from past waste storage and disposal, spills, leaks, and contaminated groundwater discharge. In cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey began an investigation in June 2009 to characterize the hydrogeology and geochemistry in the wetlands and assess the feasibility of monitored natural attenuation and enhanced bioremediation as remedial strategies. Groundwater flow in the wetland study area is predominantly vertically upward in the wetland sediments and the underlying aquifer, and groundwater discharge accounts for a minimum of 47 percent of the total discharge for the subwatershed of tidal Red Lion Creek. Thus, groundwater transport of contaminants to surface water could be significant. The major contaminants detected in groundwater in the wetland study area included benzene, monochlorobenzene, and tri- and di-chlorobenzenes. Shallow wetland groundwater in the northwest part of the wetland study area was characterized by high concentrations of total chlorinated benzenes and benzene (maximum about 75,000 micrograms per liter [μg/L]), low pH, and high chloride. In the northeast part of the wetland study area, wetland groundwater had low to moderate concentrations of total chlorinated benzenes and benzene (generally not greater than 10,000 μg/L), moderate pH, and high sulfate concentrations. Concentrations in the groundwater in excess of 1 percent of the solubility of the individual chlorinated benzenes indicate that a contaminant source is present in the wetland sediments as dense nonaqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs). Consistently higher contaminant concentrations in the shallow wetland groundwater than deeper in the wetland sediments or the aquifer also indicate a continued source in the wetland sediments, which could include dissolution of DNAPLs and desorption from the sediments.

When highly reducing, methanogenic, or sulfate-reducing conditions existed in the wetland groundwater, molar composition of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) showed that chlorobenzene and benzene were predominant, indicating biodegradation of the chlorinated benzenes through reductive dechlorination pathways. Temporal changes in redox conditions between 2009 and 2011–12 have shifted the locations in the wetland study area where reductive dechlorination is evident. Microbial community analyses of sediment showed relatively high cell numbers and diversity of populations (Dehalococcoides, Dehalobacter, Desulfitobacterium, and Geobacter) that are known to contain species capable of reductive dechlorination, confirming groundwater geochemistry evidence of the occurrence of reductive dechlorination. Natural attenuation was not sufficient, however, to reduce total VOC concentrations along upward groundwater flowpaths in the wetland sediments, most likely due to the additional source of contaminants in the upper sediments. In situ microcosms that were unamended except for the addition of 13C-labeled contaminants in some treatments, confirmed that the native microbial community was able to biodegrade the higher chlorinated benzenes through reductive dechlorination and that 1,2-dichlorobenzene, chlorobenzene, and benzene could be degraded to carbon dioxide through oxidation pathways. Microcosms that were bioaugmented with the anaerobic dechlorinating consortium WBC-2 and deployed in the wetland sediments showed reductive dechlorination of tri-, di-, and monochlorobenzene, and 13C-chlorobenzene treatments showed complete degradation of chlorobenzene to carbon dioxide under anaerobic conditions.

Experiments with a continuous flow, fixed-film bioreactor seeded with native microorganisms in groundwater from the wetland area showed both aerobic and anaerobic biodegradation of dichlorobenzenes, monochlorobenzene, and benzene, although monochlorobenzene and benzene degradation rates decreased under anaerobic conditions compared to aerobic conditions. In two bioreactors with established biofilms of WBC-2, percent removals of all chlorinated benzene compounds (medians of 86 to 94 percent) under anaerobic conditions were as high as those observed for the bioreactors seeded only with native microorganisms from the site groundwater, and benzene removal was greater in the WBC-2 bioaugmented bioreactors. The high percent removals in the WBC-2 bioreactors without the need for an acclimation period indicates that the same dechlorinators are involved in the chlorinated benzene degradation as those for the chlorinated ethanes and ethenes that the culture was developed to degrade. The ability of the WBC-2 culture to completely reduce the chlorinated benzenes and benzene, even in the presence of high sulfate and sulfide concentrations, is unique for known dechlorinating cultures. The availability of the established culture WBC-2, as well as the ability of the native wetland microbial community to degrade the site contaminants under anaerobic and aerobic conditions, provides flexibility in considering bioremediation options for the wetland areas at SCD.

First posted October 29, 2014

  • Report PDF (3.16 MB)
  • For additional information, contact:
    Director, MD-DE-DC Water Science Center
    U.S. Geological Survey
    5522 Research Park Drive
    Baltimore, MD 21228

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Suggested citation:

Lorah, M.M., Walker, C.W., Baker, A.C., Teunis, J.A., Majcher, E.H., Brayton, M.J., Raffensperger, J.P., and Cozzarelli, I.M., 2014, Hydrogeologic characterization and assessment of bioremediation of chlorinated benzenes and benzene in wetland areas, Standard Chlorine of Delaware, Inc. Superfund Site, New Castle County, Delaware, 2009–12: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5140, 89 p.,

ISSN 2328–031X (print)

ISSN 2328–0328 (online)




Methods of Data Collection and Analysis

Hydrogeologic Characterization

Geochemical Characterization

Dense Non-Aqueous Phase Liquid (DNAPL) Extent

Natural and Enhanced Biodegradation of Chlorinated Benzenes and Benzene

Summary and Conclusions


References Cited

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