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Superfund Innovative Technology Evaluation (SITE)


Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.

  Compost-Free Bioreactor Treatment of Acid Rock Drainage, Leviathan, California - Innovative Technology Evaluatin Report
March 2006
Technology Evaluation Bulletin (540/S-06/009)
SITE Technology Capsule (540/R-06/009a)

As part of the Superfund Innovative Technology Evaluation (SITE) program, an evaluation of the compost-free bioreactor treatment of acid rock drainage (ARD) from the Aspen Seep was conducted at the Leviathan Mine Superfund site located in a remote, high altitude area of Alpine County, California. The evaluation was performed by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Risk Management Research Laboratory (NRMRL), in cooperation with EPA Region IX, and Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), the state of California, and the University of Nevada-Reno (UNR). The primary target metals of concern in the ARD include aluminum, copper, iron, and nickel; secondary target metals include selenium and zinc.

Drs. Glenn Miller and Tim Tsukamoto of the UNR have developed a compost-free bioreactor technology in which sulfate-reducing bacteria are nurtured to generate sulfides which scavenge dissolved metals to form metal sulfide precipitates. Unlike compost bioreactors, this technology uses a continuous liquid carbon source and a rock matrix rather than a compost or wood chip matrix which is consumed by bacteria and collapses over time. The benefits include better control of biological activity and improved hydraulic conductivity and precipitate flushing.

Evaluation of the compost-free bioreactor technology occurred between November 2003 and July 2005. The treatment system neutralized acidity and precipitated metal sulfides from ARD at flows up to 91 liters per minute (24 gallons per minute) on a year-round basis. Multiple sampling events were conducted during both gravity flow and recirculation modes of operation. During each sampling event, EPA collected chemical data from the system influent and effluent streams, documented metals removal and reduction in acidity between the bioreactors, settling ponds, and aeration channel, and recorded operational information pertinent to the evaluation of the treatment system. The treatment system was evaluated independently, based on removal efficiencies for primary and secondary target metals, comparison of effluent concentrations to EPA interim (pre-risk assessment and record of decision) discharge standards, and on the characteristics of and disposal requirements for the resulting metals-enriched solid wastes. Removal efficiencies of individual unit operations were also evaluated.

The compost-free bioreactor treatment system was shown to be extremely effective at neutralizing acidity and reducing the concentrations of 4 of the 5 target metals in ARD flows at Leviathan Mine to below EPA interim discharge standards. During the demonstration, pilot testing to determine optimal sodium hydroxide addition resulted in exceedance of discharge standards for iron; however, after base optimization during gravity flow operations effluent iron concentrations met discharge standards. Iron also exceeded discharge standards during recirculation operations when base addition was stopped due to equipment failure or lack of adequate base supply. Although the influent concentrations for the primary target metals were up to 580 fold above the EPA interim discharge standards, the treatment system was successful in reducing the concentrations of the primary target metals in the ARD to between 1 and 43 fold below the discharge standards. Removal efficiencies for the 5 primary target metals exceeded 85 percent; sulfate ion was reduced by 17 percent. The metal sulfide precipitates generated by this technology were not found to be hazardous or pose a threat to water quality and could be used as a soil amendment for site reclamation.

Based on the success of bioreactor treatment at the Leviathan Mine site, ARCO will continue to treat ARD at the Aspen Seep. The state of California and ARCO are also evaluating the potential effectiveness, implementability, and costs for treatment of other ARD sources at the mine site.


Edward Bates

Risk Mangement Research | Air and Climate Change Research | Water Research | Ecosystems Restoration Research | Land Risk Management Research | Technology: Sustainable Technologies Research, Environmental Technology Verification Program (ETV), and Technology Assessments

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