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Distribution of petroleum hydrocarbons and toluene biodegradation, Knox Street fire pits, Fort Bragg, North Carolina

December 1, 1996

An investigation was conducted at the Knox Street fire pits, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to monitor the distribution of toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (TEX) in soil vapor, ground water, and ground-water/vapor to evaluate if total concentrations of TEX at the site are decreasing with time, and to quantify biodegradation rates of toluene in the unsaturated and saturated zones. Soil-vapor and ground-water samples were collected around the fire pits and ground-water/vapor samples were collected along the ground-water discharge zone, Beaver Creek, on a monthly basis from June 1994 through June 1995. Concentrations of TEX compounds in these samples were determined with a field gas chro- matograph. Laboratory experiments were performed on aquifer sediment samples to measure rates of toluene biodegradation by in situ micro- organisms.

Based on field gas chromatographic analytical results, contamination levels of TEX compounds in both soil vapor and ground water appear to decrease downgradient of the fire-pit source area. During the 1-year study period, the observed temporal and spatial trends in soil vapor TEX concentrations appear to reflect differences in the distribution of TEX among solid, aqueous, and gaseous phases within fuel-contaminated soils in the unsaturated zone. Soil temperature and soil moisture are two important factors which influence the distribution of TEX com- pounds among the different phases. Because of the short period of data collection, it was not possible to distinguish between seasonal fluc- tuations in soil vapor TEX concentrations and an overall net decrease in TEX concentrations at the study site.

No seasonal trend was observed in total TEX concentrations for ground- water samples collected at the study site. Although the analytical results could not be used to determine if ground-water TEX concen- trations decreased during the study at a specific location, the data were used to examine rate constants of toluene biodegradation. Based on ground-water toluene concentration data, a maximum rate constant for anaerobic biodegradation of toluene in the saturated zone was estimated to be as low as 0.002 d-1 or as high as 0.026 d-1.

Based on analyses of ground-water/vapor samples, toluene was the prin- cipal TEX compound identified in ground water discharging to Beaver Creek. Observed decreases in ground-water/vapor toluene concentrations during the study period may reflect a decrease in source inputs, an increase in dilution caused by higher ground-water flow, and(or) removal by biological or other physical processes.

Rate constants of toluene anaerobic biodegradation determined by laboratory measurements illustrate a typical acclimation response of micro-organisms to hydrocarbon contamination in sediments collected from the site. Toluene biodegradation rate constants derived from laboratory microcosm studies ranged from 0.001 to 0.027 d-1, which is similar to the range of 0.002 to 0.026 d-1 for toluene biodegradation rate constants derived from ground-water analytical data. The close agreement of toluene biodegradation rate constants reported using both approaches offer strong evidence that toluene can be degraded at environmentally significant rates at the study site.