High pH (>12) leachates are an environmental problem associated with drainage from lime (CaO)-rich industrial residues such as steel slags, lime spoil and coal combustion residues. Recent research has highlighted the potential for natural (‘volunteer’) wetlands to buffer extremely alkaline influent waters. This appears ascribable to high CO2 partial pressures in the wetland waters from microbial respiration, which accelerates precipitation of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), and the high specific surface area for mineral precipitation offered by macrophytes. The research presented here builds on this and provides preliminary evaluation of a constructed wetland built in March 2008 to buffer drainage from steel slag heaps in north-east England. The drainage water from the slag mounds is characterised by a mean pH of 11.9, high concentrations of Ca (up to 700 mg/L), total alkalinity (up to 800 mg/L as CaCO3) and are slightly brackish (Na = 300 mg/L; Cl = 400 mg/L) reflecting native groundwaters at this coastal setting. Documented calcite precipitation rates (mean of 5 g CaCO3/m2/day) from nearby volunteer sites receiving steel slag drainage were used to scale the constructed wetland planted with Phragmites australis; a species found to spontaneously grow in the vicinity of the discharge. Improved performance of the wetland during summer months may at least in part be due to biological activity which enhances rates of calcite precipitation and thus lowering of pH. Secondary Ca-rich precipitates also serve as a sink for some trace elements present at low concentrations in the slag leachate such as Ni and V. The implications for scaling and applying constructed wetlands for highly alkaline drainage are discussed.

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