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Uranium concentrations in groundwater, northeastern Washington

April 18, 2018

A study of uranium in groundwater in northeastern Washington was conducted to make a preliminary assessment of naturally occurring uranium in groundwater relying on existing information and limited reconnaissance sampling. Naturally occurring uranium is associated with granitic and metasedimentary rocks, as well as younger sedimentary deposits, that occur in this region. The occurrence and distribution of uranium in groundwater is poorly understood. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates uranium in Group A community water systems at a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 30 μg/L in order to reduce uranium exposure, protect from toxic kidney effects of uranium, and reduce the risk of cancer. However, most existing private wells in the study area, generally for single family use, have not been sampled for uranium. This document presents available uranium concentration data from throughout a multi-county region, identifies data gaps, and suggests further study aimed at understanding the occurrence of uranium in groundwater.

The study encompasses about 13,000 square miles (mi2) in the northeastern part of Washington with a 2010 population of about 563,000. Other than the City of Spokane, most of the study area is rural with small towns interspersed throughout the region. The study area also includes three Indian Reservations with small towns and scattered population. The area has a history of uranium exploration and mining, with two inactive uranium mines on the Spokane Indian Reservation and one smaller inactive mine on the outskirts of Spokane. Historical (1977–2016) uranium in groundwater concentration data were used to describe and illustrate the general occurrence and distribution of uranium in groundwater, as well as to identify data deficiencies. Uranium concentrations were detected at greater than 1 microgram per liter (μg/L) in 60 percent of the 2,382 historical samples (from wells and springs). Uranium concentrations ranged from less than 1 to 88,600 μg/L, and the median concentration of uranium in groundwater for all sites was 1.4 μg/L.

New (2017) uranium in groundwater concentration data were obtained by sampling 13 private domestic wells for uranium in areas without recent (2000s) water-quality data. Uranium was detected in all 13 wells sampled for this study; concentrations ranged from 1.03 to 1,180 μg/L with a median of 22 μg/L. Uranium concentrations of groundwater samples from 6 of the 13 wells exceeded the MCL for uranium. Uranium concentrations in water samples from two wells were 1,130 and 1,180 μg/L, respectively; nearly 40 times the MCL.

Additional data collection and analysis are needed in rural areas where self-supplied groundwater withdrawals are the primary source of water for human consumption. Of the roughly 43,000 existing water wells in the study area, only 1,755 wells, as summarized in this document, have available uranium concentration data, and some of those data are decades old. Furthermore, analysis of area groundwater quality would benefit from a more extensive chemical-analysis suite including general chemistry in order to better understand local geochemical conditions that largely govern the mobility of uranium. Although the focus of the present study is uranium, it also is important to recognize that there are other radionuclides of concern that may be present in area groundwater.

Publication Year 2018
Title Uranium concentrations in groundwater, northeastern Washington
DOI 10.3133/sim3401
Authors Sue C. Kahle, Wendy B. Welch, Alison E. Tecca, Devin M. Eliason
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Map
Series Number 3401
Index ID sim3401
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Washington Water Science Center