Bioremediation, the use of microbial degradation processes to detoxify environmental contamination, was first applied to petroleum hydrocarbon-contaminated ground water systems in the early 1970s. Since that time, these technologies have evolved in some ways that were clearly anticipated early investigators, and in other ways that were not foreseen. The expectation that adding oxidants and nutrients to contaminated aquifers would enhance biodegradation, for example, has been born out subsequent experience. Many of the technologies now in common use such as air sparging, hydrogen peroxide addition, nitrate addition, and bioslurping, are conceptually similar to the first bioremediation systems put into operation. More unexpected, however, were the considerable technical problems associated with delivering oxidants and nutrients to heterogeneous ground water systems. Experience has shown that the success of engineered bioremediation systems depends largely on how effectively directions and rates of ground water flow can be controlled, and thus how efficiently oxidants and nutrients can be delivered to contaminated aquifer sediments. The early expectation that injecting laboratory-selected or genetically engineered cultures of hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria into aquifers would be a useful bioremediation technology has not been born out subsequent experience. Rather, it appears that petroleum hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria are ubiquitous in ground water systems and that bacterial addition is usually unnecessary. Perhaps the technology that was least anticipated early investigators was the development of intrinsic bioremediation. Experience has shown that natural attenuation mechanisms - biodegradation, dilution, and sorption - limit the migration of contaminants to some degree in all ground water systems. Intrinsic bioremediation is the deliberate use of natural attenuation processes to treat contaminated ground water to specified concentration levels at predetermined points in the aquifer. In current practice, intrinsic bioremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons requires a systematic assessment to show that ambient natural attenuation mechanisms are efficient enough to meet regulatory requirements and a monitoring program to verify that performance requirements are met in the future.
Additional publication details
Bioremediation of petroleum hydrocarbon-contaminated ground water: The perspectives of history and hydrology