Federal Remediation Technologies Roundtable

Soil Washing


Soil washing is a water-based process for scrubbing soils ex situ to remove contaminants. The process removes contaminants from soils in one of two ways:

By dissolving or suspending them in the wash solution (which can be sustained by chemical manipulation of pH for a period of time).

By concentrating them into a smaller volume of soil through particle size separation, gravity separation, and attrition scrubbing (similar to those techniques used in sand and gravel operations).

Soil washing systems incorporating most of the removal techniques offer the greatest promise for application to soils contaminated with a wide variety of heavy metal, radionuclides, and organic contaminants. Commercialization of the process, however, is not yet extensive.

The concept of reducing soil contamination through the use of particle size separation is based on the finding that most organic and inorganic contaminants tend to bind, either chemically or physically, to clay, silt, and organic soil particles. The silt and clay, in turn, are attached to sand and gravel particles by physical processes, primarily compaction and adhesion. Washing processes that separate the fine (small) clay and silt particles from the coarser sand and gravel soil particles effectively separate and concentrate the contaminants into a smaller volume of soil that can be further treated or disposed of. Gravity separation is effective for removing high or low specific gravity particles such as heavy metal-containing compounds (lead, radium oxide, etc.). Attrition scrubbing removes adherent contaminant films from coarser particles. However, attrition washing can increase the fines in soils processed. The clean, larger fraction can be returned to the site for continued use.

Complex mixture of contaminants in the soil (such as a mixture of metals, nonvolatile organics, and SVOCs) and heterogeneous contaminant compositions throughout the soil mixture make it difficult to formulate a single suitable washing solution that will consistently and reliably remove all of the different types of contaminants. for these cases, sequential washing, using different wash formulations and/or different soil to wash fluid ratios, may be required.

Soil washing is generally considered a media transfer technology. The contaminated water generated from soil washing are treated with the technology(s) suitable for the contaminants.

The duration of soil washing is typically short- to medium-term.


The target contaminant groups for soil washing are SVOCs, fuels, and heavy metals. The technology can be used on selected VOCs and pesticides. The technology offers the ability for recovery of metals and can clean a wide range of organic and inorganic contaminants from coarse-grained soils.


Factors that may limit the applicability and effectiveness of the process include:

  • Complex waste mixtures (e.g., metals with organics) make formulating washing fluid difficult.
  • High humic content in soil may require pretreatment.
  • The aqueous stream will require treatment at demobilization.
  • Additional treatment steps may be required to address hazardous levels of washing solvent remaining in the treated residuals.
  • It may be difficult to remove organics adsorbed onto clay-size particles.

Data Needs:

Particle size distribution (0.24 to 2 mm optimum range); soil type, physical form, handling properties, and moisture content; contaminant type and concentration; texture; organic content; cation exchange capacity; pH and buffering capacity. A complete bench scale treatability study should always be completed before applying this technology as a remedial solution.

Performance Data:

At the present time, soil washing is used extensively in Europe but has had limited use in the United States. During 1986-1989, the technology was one of the selected source control remedies at eight Superfund sites.

Soil washing provides a cost effective and environmentally proactive alternative to stabilization and landfilling. Two pilot scale demonstrations were carried out at Fort Polk, Louisiana in 1996. These employed commercially available unit processes - physical separation/acid leaching systems. The system employed acetic acid as the leaching agent, and the other, hydrochloric acid. Input soil had a lead content of approximately 3500 mg/kg. The hydrochloric acid system was most effective. Processed soil had total lead concentration of 200 mg/kg and TCLP levels for lead of approximately 2 mg/L. The through put rate was approximately 6 tons per hour. Choice of acid leaching agent is a function of specific soil chemistry and degree of solubility required.


The average cost for use of this technology, including excavation, is approximately $170 per ton, depending on site specific conditions and the target waste quantity and concentration.

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