The success of engineered microbiological systems is evident in the global application of activated sludge communities to remediate coking effluent. However, there is a lack of understanding of the microbiology underlying treatment efficiency and stability. In this study, two functionally distinct activated sludge pools, treating the same effluent and operating under the same conditions, were examined to establish a relationship between overall diversity and/or functional diversity with respect to process stability. Molecular profiling, sequencing and RNA-based stable isotope probing were used to examine the bacterial diversity, general composition and functional composition of the most abundant members of the two communities. The inferior process stability in one of the pools could not be explained by reduced total bacterial diversity or evenness. RNA-based stable isotope probing revealed that both pools harboured an abundant phenol-degrading Acidovorax species, and that the pool of inferior stability accommodated an additional closely related phenol-degrading Acidovorax species at high abundance. These results are discussed in the context of deterministic and stochastic models of microbial community assembly.