Date of Award


Degree Name

MS in Civil and Environmental Engineering


Civil and Environmental Engineering


Yarrow Nelson


Native and naturalized California plant species were screened for their phytoremediation potential for the cleanup of soil contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons (PHCs), poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorinated dioxins/furans, and heavy metals. This screening was followed by controlled greenhouse experiments to further evaluate the phytoremediation potential of the best candidates. Field specimens and soils used for this study were collected from the former Energy Technology Engineering Center (ETEC) at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Southern California that was operated by the Department of Energy (DOE). Soils at this site contain all of the contaminants of interest (COIs). Nine plant species were screened in the field: Purple Needlegrass (Nassella pulchra), Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), Laurel Sumac (Malosma laurina), Mule Fat (Baccharis salicifolia), Palmer’s Goldenbush (Ericameria palmeri), Summer Mustard (Hirschfeldia incana), Narrowleaf Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis), and Thickleaf Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon crassifolium). In the field three samples of each species growing in contaminated soil and one of each species growing in uncontaminated soil were selected for harvesting and analysis. The roots, above ground plant tissue, and soil around the roots were sampled separately and analyzed for the COIs: PHCs, PAHs, PCBs, chlorinated dioxins/furans, and metals (which include mercury, silver, cadmium, and lead). All of the plants in the field appeared to generate compounds which result in higher measured PHC concentrations than those measured in the associated soil. The highest concentrations of PAHs in the roots were observed for Blue Elderberry (1740 ug/kg), Purple Needlegrass (703 ug/kg), and Yerba Santa (200 ug/kg). No uptake of PCBs was observed in the roots or foliage of any species. The highest concentrations of total chlorinated dioxins/furans in the roots were observed for Purple Needlegrass (2237 ng/kg), Blue Elderberry (1026 ng/kg), Palmer’s Goldenbush (432 ng/kg), and Yerba Santa (421 ng/kg). The highest concentrations of total chlorinated dioxins/furans in the foliage were observed for Yerba Santa (901 ng/kg), Palmer’s Goldenbush (757 ng/kg), and Purple Needlegrass (694 ng/kg). No uptake of mercury was observed in the roots or foliage of any species. The highest concentration of silver in the roots was observed for Laurel Sumac (7.34 mg/kg). Summer Mustard (SM) was the only species that showed uptake of silver into the foliage (0.405 mg/kg). The highest concentrations of cadmium in the roots and foliage were observed for Mule Fat (1.84 mg/kg and 3.64 mg/kg) and Coyote Brush (1.52 mg/kg and 2.12 mg/kg) and the greatest concentration of lead in the roots and foliage was observed for Purple Needlegrass (8.92 mg/kg and 1.17 mg/kg).

Plants with a wide variety of observed contaminant uptake in the field were selected for a second phase of research in which three of the most promising species were grown in greenhouse microcosms to quantify the removal of contaminants from the soil. The three species selected based on preliminary results from the field study were Coyote Brush, Mule Fat, and Purple Needlegrass. Microcosms consisted of 2.17 kg of soil in 4-L glass jars with glass marbles for an underdrain. Plants were watered with deionized water and no leachate was collected. Five replicates of each microcosm type were created and incubated for 211 days with soil sampling at 85 and 211 days. Soil, plant roots/above ground tissue, and volatilization from the plants were analyzed for COIs to determine the mechanisms of phytoremediation. One set of microcosms was used to test the effect of addition of achelating agent (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) and another set was used to test the effect of fertilizer addition on phytoremediation potential. Three control treatments were tested: sterilized (gamma irradiation) soil planted with Purple Needlegrass, unplanted soil, and sterilized unplanted soil. None of the plant species demonstrated volatilization of COIs under these conditions. Volatilization of mercury was not tested for. The average PCB concentration (measured as Aroclor 1260) reductions in soils with Purple Needlegrass and chelated Coyote Brush were 49.4% and 51.4% respectively (p < 0.05). However, the sterilized unplanted control also had a decrease of Aroclor 1260 concentrations in the soil of 36.6% (p < 0.05). None of the species phytoextracted PCBs, so the mechanism of PCB remediation appears to be phytostimulation of the rhizosphere. Purple Needlegrass showed the greatest uptake of dioxins/furans into the foliage but did not appear to reduce the dioxin/furan concentrations in the soil. Coyote Brush, fertilized Coyote Brush, and Mule Fat also showed uptake of dioxins/furans into the roots and foliage. Only the Coyote Brush and fertilized Coyote Brush significantly (p = 0.036, p = 0.022) reduced the total dioxin/furan concentration in the soil (17.8% and 19.8% respectively). Coyote Brush may have stimulated microbes in the rhizosphere to better degrade the dioxins/furans. None of the plants were identified as hyper-accumulators of metals, and none of the soil metal concentrations significantly decreased in any of the microcosms. All of the metals (except mercury) were taken into the roots of plants to some degree, with Purple Needlegrass showing the most promise for metal extraction as it showed some of the highest concentrations of metals in roots and was the only species that contained mercury and silver in the foliage.

This study suggests that there is some potential for phytoremediation of PCBs and chlorinated dioxins/furans. The results for petroleum hydrocarbons were inconclusive. Metal uptake was not substantial enough to lower metal concentrations in the soils. Thus phytoremediation of COIs at the site is limited and more aggressive forms of remediation may be required to reduce the concentrations of COIs quickly.