Effects of a Permeable Reactive Barrier on Denitrifying Bacteria Communities and Methylmercury Concentrations in Waquoit Bay, MA

EPA Grant Number: FP917466
Title: Effects of a Permeable Reactive Barrier on Denitrifying Bacteria Communities and Methylmercury Concentrations in Waquoit Bay, MA
Investigators: Hiller, Kenly Ann
Institution: University of Massachusetts - Boston
EPA Project Officer: Lee, Sonja
Project Period: September 1, 2012 through August 31, 2015
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2012) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Environmental and Water Science


A new approach to mitigating nutrient loading called a permeable reactive barrier has been installed at Waquoit Bay, MA. This barrier intercepts ground water and provides a carbon source for an increased population of denitrifying bacteria. These bacteria scrub ground water of the excess nitrate that fuels eutrophication. However, the barriers also support increased populations of sulfate-reducing bacteria, which have the ability to methylate the large amounts of mercury coming in through the ground water. Only geochemical studies have been conducted on the barrier so far, so this study aims to characterize the denitrifying bacteria in the barrier to determine how populations differ from a control beach. It also aims to measure the amount of toxic methylmercury entering the bay as a result of the barrier.


To determine if denitrifying bacteria in the barrier are distinct from denitrifying bacteria from control sites, the study will build clone libraries from ground water at both sites to look at the genetic diversity and phylogeny of the bacteria. To determine mercury concentrations, the study will measure mercury levels in the ground water throughout three seasons (summer, fall and spring because microbial activity is probably very low during the winter). Finally, the study will measure mercury concentrations in benthic infauna once a year (at the end of summer after the period of highest microbial activity) to see whether toxic methylmercury is being bioaccumulated in the food web. If this is the case, the study also will characterize the genetic variability of sulfate-reducing bacteria.

Expected Results:

It is expected that microbial denitrifying bacterial communities in the barrier will be distinct from those at control sites due to the high amount of degradable carbon and the unique redox conditions present within the barrier. It also is expected that toxic methylmercury concentrations will be elevated downgradient from the barrier relative to control sites because of the presence of sulfate-reducing bacteria (indicated by the production of hydrogen sulfide). If they are methylating even one-tenth of the mercury coming in from ground water, it might be enough to accumulate in fish tissue.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection
Methylmercury is the most toxic form of mercury in terms of bioaccumulation. Very small concentrations in the water column are enough to biomagnify to fish tissue, so if the barriers are contributing a significant amount of methylmercury, the Town of Falmouth cannot continue with its plan to install a 300-meter long test barrier despite its efficiency at mitigating eutrophication.

Supplemental Keywords:

mercury, eutrophication, bioaccumulation

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2013
  • 2014
  • Final