Defining biodegradation rates and processes is a critical part of assessing the feasibility of monitored natural attenuation as a remediation method for ground water containing organic contaminants. During 1998?2001, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted a microbial study at a freshwater tidal wetland along the West Branch Canal Creek, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, as part of an investigation of natural attenuation of chlorinated volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the wetland sediments. Geochemical analyses and molecular biology techniques were used to investigate factors controlling anaerobic degradation of 1,1,2,2-tetrachloroethane (TeCA), and to characterize the microbial communities that potentially are important in its degradation. Rapid TeCA and daughter product degradation observed in laboratory experiments and estimated with field data confirm that natural attenuation is a feasible remediation method at this site. The diverse microbial community that seems to be involved in TeCA degradation in the wetland sediments varies with changing spatial and seasonal conditions, allowing continued effective natural attenuation throughout the year.
Rates of TeCA degradation in anaerobic microcosm experiments conducted with wetland sediment collected from two different sites (WB23 and WB30) and during three different seasons (March?April 1999, July?August 1999, and October?November 2000) showed little spatial variability but high seasonal variability. Initial first-order degradation rate constants for TeCA ranged from 0.10?0.01 to 0.16?0.05 per day (half-lives of 4.3 to 6.9 days) for March?April 1999 and October?November 2000 microcosms incubated at 19 degrees Celsius, whereas lower rate constants of 0 ? 0.03 and 0.06 ? 0.03 per day were obtained in July?August 1999 microcosms incubated at 19 degrees Celsius. Microbial community profiles showed that low microbial biomass and microbial diversity in the summer, possibly due to competition for nutrients by the wetland vegetation, could account for these unexpectedly low degradation rates. In microcosms incubated at 5 degrees Celsius, about 50 percent of the initial TeCA in solution was converted to daughter products within a 35-day incubation period, indicating that biodegradation in the wetland sediments can continue during cold winter temperatures.
Initial pathways of TeCA degradation were the same in the wetland sediment microcosms regardless of the season or sediment collection site, the reduction-oxidation conditions, and the previous exposure of the sediment to contamination. Immediate and simultaneous dichloroelimination and hydrogenolysis, producing 1,2-dichloro-ethene (12DCE) and 1,1,2-trichloroethane (112TCA), respectively, were the initial TeCA degradation pathways in all live microcosm experiments. The production and degradation of vinyl chloride (VC), which is the most toxic of the TeCA daughter compounds, was affected by spatial and seasonal variability, reduction-oxidation condition, and pre-exposure of the wetland sediment. TeCA-amended microcosms constructed with WB30 sediment showed approximately twice as much VC production as those constructed with WB23 sediment. Results of 112TCA-amended microcosms indicated that the greater production of VC in the WB30 sediment resulted from a greater predominance of the 112TCA dichloro-elimination pathway in these sediments. VC degradation also was substantially higher in microcosms constructed with WB30 sediment than those constructed with WB23 sediment, resulting in lower VC concentrations at the end of WB30 microcosms. Enrichment experiments in which microcosm slurry was amended with high initial VC concentrations showed that the spatial difference in VC degradation was negligible after prolonged incubation under methanogenic conditions. Inhibition of methanogenic activity in microcosms by addition of sulfate or of 2-bromoethanesulfonic acid inhibited production and degradation of VC. Inhibition of methanogenesis b