Studies were conducted on a mixture of pollutants commonly found in coke oven wastewater (CWW) to evaluate the biodegradation of various pollutants under anaerobic, aerobic, and anoxic conditions. The removal of the pollutants was monitored during individual bioreactor operation and using a combination of bioreactors operating in anaerobic–aerobic–anoxic sequence. While studying the performance of individual reactors, it was observed that cyanide removal (83.3 %) was predominant in the aerobic bioreactor, while much of the chemical oxygen demand (COD) (69 %) was consumed in the anoxic bioreactor. With the addition of cyanide, the COD removal efficiency was affected in all the bioreactors, and several intermediates were detected. While treating synthetic CWW using the combined bioreactor system, the overall COD removal efficiency was 86.79 % at an OLR of 2.4 g COD/L/day and an HRT of 96 h. The removal efficiency of 3,5-xylenol and cyanide, with inlet concentration of 150 and 10 mg/L, was found to be 91.8 and 93.6 % respectively. It was found that the impact of xylenol on the performance of the bioreactors was less than cyanide toxicity. Molecular analysis using T-RFLP revealed the dominance of strictly aerobic, mesophilic proteobacterium, Bosea minatitlanensis, in the aerobic bioreactor. The anoxic bioreactor was dominant with Rhodococcus pyridinivorans, known for its remarkable aromatic decomposing activity, while an unclassified Myxococcales bacterium was identified as the predominant bacterial species in the anaerobic bioreactor. © 2014, Springer Science+Business Media New York.