Biodegradation of Chlorinated Ethenes at a Karst Site in Middle Tennessee


This report presents results of field and laboratory investigations examining the biodegradation of chlorinated ethenes in a karst aquifer contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE). The study site, located in Middle Tennessee, was selected because of the presence of TCE degradation byproducts in the karst aquifer and available site hydrologic and chlorinated-ethene information. Additional chemical, biological, and hydrologic data were gathered to evaluate whether the occurrence of TCE degradation byproducts in the karst aquifer was the result of biodegradation within the aquifer or simply transport into the aquifer. Geochemical analysis established that sulfate-reducing conditions, essential for reductive dechlorination of chlorinated solvents, existed in parts of the contaminated karst aquifer. Other areas of the aquifer fluctuated between anaerobic and aerobic conditions and contained compounds associated with cometabolism, such as ethane, methane, ammonia, and dissolved oxygen. A large, diverse bacteria population inhabits the contaminated aquifer. Bacteria known to biodegrade TCE and other chlorinated solvents, such as sulfate-reducers, methanotrophs, and ammonia-oxidizers, were identified from karst-aquifer water using the RNA-hybridization technique. Results from microcosms using raw karst-aquifer water found that aerobic cometabolism and anaerobic reductive-dechlorination degradation processes were possible when appropriate conditions were established in the microcosms. These chemical and biological results provide circumstantial evidence that several biodegradation processes are active in the aquifer. Additional site hydrologic information was developed to determine if appropriate conditions persist long enough in the karst aquifer for these biodegradation processes to be significant. Continuous monitoring devices placed in four wells during the spring of 1998 indicated that pH, specific conductance, dissolved oxygen, and oxidation-reduction potentials changed very little in areas isolated from active ground-water flow paths. These stable areas in the karst aquifer had geochemical conditions and bacteria conducive to reductive dechlorination of chlorinated ethenes. Other areas of the karst aquifer were associated with active ground-water flow paths and fluctuated between anaerobic and aerobic conditions in response to rain events. Associated with this dynamic environment were bacteria and geochemical conditions conducive to cometabolism. In summary, multiple lines of evidence developed from chemical, biological, and hydrologic data demonstrate that a variety of biodegradation processes are active in this karst aquifer.

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