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The assessment and remediation of mercury contaminated sites: A review of current approaches

December 13, 2019

Remediation of mercury (Hg) contaminated sites has long relied on traditional approaches, such as removal and containment/capping. Here we review contemporary practices in the assessment and remediation of industrial-scale Hg contaminated sites and discuss recent advances. Significant improvements have been made in site assessment, including the use of XRF to rapidly identify the spatial extent of contamination, Hg stable isotope fractionation to identify sources and transformation processes, and solid-phase characterization (XAFS) to evaluate Hg forms. The understanding of Hg bioavailability for methylation has been improved by methods such as sequential chemical extractions and porewater measurements, including the use of diffuse gradient in thin-film (DGT) samplers. These approaches have shown varying success in identifying bioavailable Hg fractions and further study and field applications are needed. The downstream accumulation of methylmercury (MeHg) in biota is a concern at many contaminated sites. Identifying the variables limiting/controlling MeHg production—such as bioavailable inorganic Hg, organic carbon, and/or terminal electron acceptors (e.g. sulfate, iron) is critical. Mercury can be released from contaminated sites to the air and water, both of which are influenced by meteorological and hydrological conditions. Mercury mobilized from contaminated sites is predominantly bound to particles, highly correlated with total sediment solids (TSS), and elevated during stormflow. Remediation techniques to address Hg contamination can include the removal or containment of Hg contaminated materials, the application of amendments to reduce mobility and bioavailability, landscape/waterbody manipulations to reduce MeHg production, and food web manipulations through stocking or extirpation to reduce MeHg accumulated in desired species. These approaches often rely on knowledge of the Hg forms/speciation at the site, and utilize physical, chemical, thermal and biological methods to achieve remediation goals. Overall, the complexity of Hg cycling allows many different opportunities to reduce/mitigate impacts, which creates flexibility in determining suitable and logistically feasible remedies.

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