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Landfarming | Office of Underground Storage Tanks (OUST) | US EPA

The following description of Landfarming is an excerpt from Chapter V of OUST’s publication: How to Evaluate Alternative Cleanup Technologies for Underground Storage Tank Sites: A Guide for Corrective Action Plan Reviewers. (EPA 510-B-95-007). This publication also describes 9 additional alternative technologies for remediation of petroleum releases. You can download PDF files of every chapter of the document at:


Landfarming, also known as land treatment or land application, is an above-ground remediation technology for soils that reduces concentrations of petroleum constituents through biodegradation. This technology usually involves spreading excavated contaminated soils in a thin layer on the ground surface and stimulating aerobic microbial activity within the soils through aeration and/or the addition of minerals, nutrients, and moisture. The enhanced microbial activity results in degradation of adsorbed petroleum product constituents through microbial respiration. If contaminated soils are shallow (i.e., less than 3 feet below ground surface), it may be possible to effectively stimulate microbial activity without excavating the soils. If petroleum-contaminated soil is deeper than 5 feet, the soils should be excavated and reapplied on the ground surface.


Landfarming has been proven effective in reducing concentrations of nearly all the constituents of petroleum products typically found at underground storage tank (UST) sites. Petroleum products generally encountered at UST sites range from those with a significant volatile fraction, such as gasoline, to those that are primarily nonvolatile, such as heating and lubricating oils.

Petroleum products generally contain more than one hundred different constituents that possess a wide range of volatility. In general, gasoline, kerosene, and diesel fuels contain constituents with sufficient volatility to evaporate from a landfarm. Lighter (more volatile) petroleum products (e.g., gasoline) tend to be removed by evaporation during landfarm aeration processes (i.e., tilling or plowing) and, to a lesser extent, degraded by microbial respiration. Depending upon your state’s regulations for air emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), you may need to control the VOC emissions. Control involves capturing the vapors before they are emitted to the atmosphere, passing them through an appropriate treatment process, and then venting them to the atmosphere.

The mid-range hydrocarbon products (e.g., diesel fuel, kerosene) contain lower percentages of lighter (more volatile) constituents than does gasoline. Biodegradation of these petroleum products is more significant than evaporation. Heavier (non-volatile) petroleum products (e.g., heating oil, lubricating oils) do not evaporate during landfarm aeration; the dominant mechanism that breaks down these petroleum products is biodegradation. However, higher molecular weight petroleum constituents such as those found in heating and lubricating oils, and, to a lesser extent, in diesel fuel and kerosene, require a longer period of time to degrade than do the constituents in gasoline.

Operation Principles

Soil normally contains large numbers of diverse microorganisms including bacteria, algae, fungi, protozoa, and actinomycetes. In well-drained soils, which are most appropriate for landfarming, these organisms are generally aerobic. Of these organisms, bacteria are the most numerous and biochemically active group, particularly at low oxygen levels. Bacteria require a carbon source for cell growth and an energy source to sustain metabolic functions required for growth. Bacteria also require nitrogen and phosphorus for cell growth. Although sufficient types and quantities of microorganisms are usually present in the soil, recent applications of ex-situ soil treatment include blending the soil with cultured microorganisms or animal manure (typically from chickens or cows). Incorporating manure serves to both augment the microbial population and provide additional nutrients.

The metabolic process used by bacteria to produce energy requires a terminal electron acceptor (TEA) to enzymatically oxidize the carbon source to carbon dioxide. Microbes are classified by the carbon and TEA sources they use to carry out metabolic processes. Bacteria that use organic compounds (e.g., petroleum constituents and other naturally occurring organics) as their source of carbon are heterotrophic; those that use inorganic carbon compounds (e.g., carbon dioxide) are autotrophic. Bacteria that use oxygen as their TEA are aerobic; those that use a compound other than oxygen, (e.g., nitrate, sulfate), are anaerobic; and those that can utilize both oxygen and other compounds as TEAs are facultative. For landfarming applications directed at petroleum products, only bacteria that are both aerobic (or facultative) and heterotrophic are important in the degradation process.

The effectiveness of landfarming depends on parameters that may be grouped into three categories:

  1. soil characteristics

  2. constituent characteristics

  3. climatic conditions.

Soil texture affects the permeability, moisture content, and bulk density of the soil. To ensure that oxygen addition (by tilling or plowing), nutrient distribution, and moisture content of the soils can be maintained within effective ranges, you must consider the texture of the soils. For example, soils which tend to clump together (such as clays) are difficult to aerate and result in low oxygen concentrations. It is also difficult to uniformly distribute nutrients throughout these soils. They also retain water for extended periods following a precipitation event.

The volatility of contaminants proposed for treatment by landfarming is important because volatile constituents tend to evaporate from the landfarm, particularly during tilling or plowing operations, rather than being biodegraded by bacteria. Depending upon state-specific regulations for air emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), control of VOC emissions may be required. Control involves capturing vapors before they are emitted to the atmosphere and then passing them through an appropriate treatment process before being vented to the atmosphere. Control devices range from erected structures such as a greenhouse or plastic tunnel to a simple cover such as a plastic sheet.

Although nearly all constituents in petroleum products typically found at UST sites are biodegradable, the more complex the molecular structure of the constituent, the more difficult, and less rapid, is biological treatment. Most low molecular-weight (nine carbon atoms or less) aliphatic and monoaromatic constituents are more easily biodegraded than higher molecular weight aliphatic or polyaromatic organic constituents.

Typical landfarms are uncovered and, therefore, exposed to climatic factors including rainfall, snow, and wind, as well as ambient temperatures. Rainwater that falls directly onto, or runs onto, the landfarm area will increase the moisture content of the soil and cause erosion. During and following a significant precipitation event, the moisture content of the soils may be temporarily in excess of that required for effective bacterial activity. On the other hand, during periods of drought, moisture content may be below the effective range and additional moisture may need to be added. Erosion of landfarm soils can occur during windy periods and particularly during tilling or plowing operations. Wind erosion can be limited by plowing soils into windrows and applying moisture periodically. In colder parts of the United States, such as the Northeastern states, the length of the landfarming season is shorter, typically ranging from only 7 to 9 months. In very cold climates, special precautions can be taken, including enclosing the landfarm within a greenhouse-type structure or introducing special bacteria (psychrophiles), which are capable of activity at lower temperatures. In warm regions, the landfarming season can last all year.

System Design

Landfarm Construction includes: site preparation (grubbing, clearing and grading); berms; liners (if necessary); leachate collection and treatment systems; soil pretreatment methods (e.g., shredding, blending and amendments for fluffing, pH control); and enclosures and appropriate vapor treatment facilities (where needed).

To support bacterial growth, the soil pH should be within the 6 to 8 range, with a value of about 7 (neutral) being optimal. Soils with pH values outside this range prior to landfarming will require pH adjustment prior to and during landfarming operations. Soil pH within the landfarm can be raised through the addition of lime and lowered by adding elemental sulfur.

Soil microorganisms require moisture for proper growth. Excessive soil moisture, however, restricts the movement of air through the subsurface thereby reducing the availability of oxygen which is also necessary for aerobic bacterial metabolic processes. In general, the soil should be moist but not wet or dripping wet. The ideal range for soil moisture is between 40 and 85 percent of the water-holding capacity (field capacity) of the soil or about 12 percent to 30 percent by weight. Periodically, moisture must be added in landfarming operations because soils become dry as a result of evaporation, which is increased during aeration operations (i.e., tilling and/or plowing). Excessive accumulation of moisture can occur at landfarms in areas with high precipitation or poor drainage. These conditions should be considered in the landfarm design. For example, an impervious cover can mitigate excessive infiltration and potential erosion of the landfarm.

Water Management systems for control of runon and runoff are necessary to avoid saturation of the treatment area or washout of the soils in the landfarm. Runon is usually controlled by earthen berms or ditches that intercept and divert the flow of stormwater. Runoff can be controlled by diversion within the bermed treatment area to a retention pond where the runoff can be stored, treated, or released under a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

Soil Erosion Control from wind or water generally includes terracing the soils into windrows, constructing water management systems, and spraying to minimize dust.

Microorganisms require inorganic nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus to support cell growth and sustain biodegradation processes. Nutrients may be available in sufficient quantities in the site soils but, more frequently, nutrients need to be added to landfarm soils to maintain bacterial populations. However, excessive amounts of certain nutrients (i.e., phosphate and sulfate) can repress microbial metabolism.

If the site is located in an area subject to annual rainfall of greater than 30 inches during the landfarming season, a rain shield (such as a tarp, plastic tunnel, or greenhouse structure) should be considered in the design of the landfarm. In addition, rainfall runon and runoff from the landfarm should be controlled using berms at the perimeter of the landfarm. A leachate collection system at the bottom of the landfarm and a leachate treatment system may also be necessary to prevent groundwater contamination from the landfarm.

pH Adjustment and Nutrient Supply methods usually include periodic application of solid fertilizers, lime and/or sulfur while disking to blend soils with the solid amendments, or applying liquid nutrients using a sprayer. The composition of nutrients and acid or alkaline solutions/solids for pH control is developed in biotreatability studies and the frequency of their application is modified during landfarm operation as needed.

Air Emission Controls (e.g., covers or structural enclosures) may be required if volatile constituents are present in the landfarm soils. For compliance with air quality regulations, the volatile organic emissions should be estimated based on initial concentrations of the petroleum constituents present. Vapors above the landfarm should be monitored during the initial phases of landfarm operation for compliance with appropriate permits or regulatory limits on atmospheric discharges. If required, appropriate vapor treatment technology should be specified, including operation and monitoring parameters.

It is important to make sure that system operation and monitoring plans have been developed for the landfarming operation. Regular monitoring is necessary to ensure optimization of biodegradation rates, to track constituent concentration reductions, and to monitor vapor emissions, migration of constituents into soils beneath the landfarm (if unlined), and groundwater quality. If appropriate, ensure that monitoring to determine compliance with stormwater discharge or air quality permits is also proposed.


  1. Relatively simple to design and implement.

  2. Short treatment times (usually 6 months to 2 years under optimal conditions).

  3. Cost competitive: $30-60/ton of contaminated soil.

  4. Effective on organic constituents with slow biodegradation rates.


  1. Concentration reductions greater than 95% and constituent concentrations less than 0.1 ppm are very difficult to achieve.

  2. May not be effective for high constituent concentrations (greater than 50,000 ppm total petroleum hydrocarbons).

  3. Presence of significant heavy metal concentrations (greater than 2,500 ppm) may inhibit microbial growth.

  4. Volatile constituents tend to evaporate rather than biodegrade during treatment.

  5. Requires a large land area for treatment.

  6. Dust and vapor generation during landfarm aeration may pose air quality concerns.

  7. May require bottom liner if leaching from the landfarm is a concern.


Alexander, M. 1994. Biodegradation and Bioremediation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Flathman, P.E. and D.E. Jerger. 1993. Bioremediation Field Experience. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Freeman, H.M. 1989. Standard Handbook of Hazardous Waste Treatment and Disposal. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Grasso, D. 1993. Hazardous Waste Site Remediation, Source Control. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Norris, R.D., Hinchee, R.E., Brown, R.A., McCarty, P.L., Semprini, L., Wilson, J.T., Kampbell, D.H., Reinhard, M., Bower, E.J., Borden, R.C., Vogel, T.M., Thomas, J.M., and C.H. Ward. 1994. Handbook of Bioremediation. Boca Raton, FL:CRC Press.

Norris, R.D., Hinchee, R.E., Brown, R.A., McCarty, P.L., Semprini, L., Wilson, J.T., Kampbell, D.H., Reinhard, M., Bower, E.J., Borden, R.C., Vogel, T.M., Thomas, J.M., and C.H. Ward. 1993. In-Situ Bioremediation of Ground Water and Geological Material: A Review of Technologies. Ada, OK: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development. EPA/5R-93/124.

Pope, Daniel F., and J.E. Matthews. 1993. Environmental Regulations and Technology: Bioremediation Using the Land Treatment Concept. Ada, OK: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Research Laboratory. EPA/600/R-93/164.


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