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Groundwater quality and geochemistry of the western wet gas part of the Marcellus Shale Oil and Gas Play in West Virginia

December 16, 2022

Thirty rural residential water wells in the wet gas region of the Marcellus Shale oil and gas play in northwestern West Virginia were sampled by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 2018, in cooperation with West Virginia State agencies, to analyze for a range of water-quality constituents, including major ions, trace metals, radionuclides, bacteria, and methane and other dissolved hydrocarbon gases. The groundwater-quality data collected for this study were used to assess the overall quality of groundwater in the study area in relation to public drinking-water standards. The groundwater-quality data were also evaluated with respect to geology, well depth, topographic setting, and proximity to oil and gas wells to identify possible relations to these factors.

The presence of total coliform bacteria in groundwater is a potential indicator of surface contamination. The presence of Escherichia coli bacteria is indicative of fecal contamination of groundwater from either human or animal sources and may be considered an indicator of other related pathogens such as viruses. Total coliforms were detected in 26 of the 30 (87 percent) wells sampled. Eleven of the 30 (37 percent) wells sampled had detections of Escherichia coli bacteria.

Sodium concentrations in 24 of 30 (80 percent) samples exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 20-milligram per Liter (mg/L) health-based value (HBV). Manganese, aluminum, and iron concentrations exceeded the EPA 50, 2.0, and 300 micrograms per liter (μg/L) secondary maximum contaminant level (SMCL) drinking-water standards at 14 (47 percent), 7 (23 percent), and 5 (17 percent) of the 30 wells sampled. Two of the 30 (7 percent) wells sampled had concentrations of manganese that exceeded the 300-μg/L USGS health-based screening level (HBSL). Arsenic concentrations at 7 of 30 (23 percent) wells sampled exceeded the 10-μg/L EPA maximum contaminant level (MCL) health-based drinking water standard. The EPA maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) for arsenic is 0 μg/L and 29 of 30 wells sampled contained detectable concentrations of arsenic.

None of the 30 wells sampled exceeded the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) 28-mg/L immediate action level (IAL) for methane in groundwater and only 1 of 30 (3 percent) sites exceeded the 10-mg/L OSMRE level of concern (LOC) for methane in groundwater. Of the 28 wells sampled for radon-222 all 28 (100 percent) exceeded the EPA proposed 300-picocuries per liter (pCi/L) MCL for radon. None of the samples exceeded the 4,000-pCi/L alternate maximum contaminant level (AMCL) which is applicable to public drinking water systems that have adopted radon mitigation programs.

Wilcoxon Signed Rank Tests indicated statistically significant differences at a 95 percent confidence interval (p less than 0.05) in radium-226, barium, and ethane groundwater concentrations with respect to the density of oil and gas wells present within a 500-meter (m) radius around the rural residential wells sampled for the study. Samples from residential wells that had four or fewer oil and gas wells in the surrounding 500-m radius had statistically lower concentrations of radium-226, bromide, and ethane than samples from residential wells sampled that had five or more oil and gas wells in the surrounding 500-m radius. Given the available data, the relationship between concentrations of radium-226, bromide, and ethane for wells sampled in this study and oil and gas development or natural geochemical processes is not clear.

Groundwater-age tracers (chlorofluorocarbons, tritium, and sulfur hexafluoride) were sampled at 17 of the 30 wells. All 17 samples contained a fraction of young, post-1950s groundwater. Many of the groundwater samples collected for this study have high calcium to sodium ratios and low total dissolved solids concentrations, indicating they are dominated by recently recharged water. A subset of samples had chloride to bromide mass ratios between 70 and 200, indicating that deep Appalachian basin brines mixed with the shallow groundwater. For most of the samples in this study, the C1 through C6 hydrocarbons have characteristics that reflect a biogenic gas signature that has, to varying degrees, undergone oxidation processes during transport. None of the samples show a characteristic thermogenic cracking pattern among the hydrocarbon ratios.

Publication Year 2022
Title Groundwater quality and geochemistry of the western wet gas part of the Marcellus Shale Oil and Gas Play in West Virginia
DOI 10.3133/sir20225094
Authors Mark D. Kozar, Mitchell A. McAdoo, Karl B. Haase
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2022-5094
Index ID sir20225094
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Virginia and West Virginia Water Science Center