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Baseline assessment of groundwater quality in Pike County, Pennsylvania, 2015

December 29, 2017

The Devonian-age Marcellus Shale and the Ordovician-age Utica Shale, which have the potential for natural gas development, underlie Pike County and neighboring counties in northeastern Pennsylvania. In 2015, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Pike County Conservation District, conducted a study that expanded on a previous more limited 2012 study to assess baseline shallow groundwater quality in bedrock aquifers in Pike County prior to possible extensive shale-gas development. Seventy-nine water wells ranging in depths from 80 to 610 feet were sampled during June through September 2015 to provide data on the presence of methane and other aspects of existing groundwater quality in the various bedrock geologic units throughout the county, including concentrations of inorganic constituents commonly present at low values in shallow, fresh groundwater but elevated in brines associated with fluids extracted from geologic formations during shale-gas development. All groundwater samples collected in 2015 were analyzed for bacteria, dissolved and total major ions, nutrients, selected dissolved and total inorganic trace constituents (including metals and other elements), radon-222, gross alpha- and gross beta-particle activity, dissolved gases (methane, ethane, and propane), and, if sufficient methane was present, the isotopic composition of methane. Additionally, samples from 20 wells distributed throughout the county were analyzed for selected man-made volatile organic compounds, and samples from 13 wells where waters had detectable gross alpha activity were analyzed for radium-226 on the basis of relatively elevated gross alpha-particle activity.

Results of the 2015 study show that groundwater quality generally met most drinking-water standards for constituents and properties included in analyses, but groundwater samples from some wells had one or more constituents or properties, including arsenic, iron, manganese, pH, bacteria, sodium, chloride, sulfate, total dissolved solids, and radon-222, that did not meet (commonly termed failed or exceeded) primary or secondary maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) or Health Advisories (HA) for drinking water. Except for iron, dissolved and total concentrations of major ions and most trace constituents generally were similar. Only 1 of 79 well-water samples had any constituent that exceeded a MCL, with an arsenic concentration of about 30 micrograms per liter (µg/L) that was higher than the MCL of 10 µg/L. However, total arsenic concentrations were higher than the HA of 2 µg/L in samples from another 12 of 79 wells (about 15 percent). Secondary maximum contaminant levels (SMCLs) were exceeded most frequently by pH and concentrations of iron and manganese. The pH was outside of the SMCL range of 6.5–8.5 in samples from 24 of 79 wells (30 percent), ranging from 5.5 to 9.2; more samples had pH values less than 6.5 than had pH values greater than 8.5. Total iron concentrations typically were much greater than dissolved iron concentrations, indicating substantial presence of iron in particulate phase, and exceeded the SMCL of 300 µg/L more often [35 of 79 samples (44 percent)] than dissolved iron concentrations [samples from 8 of 79 wells (10 percent)]. Total manganese concentrations exceeded the SMCL of 50 µg/L in samples from 31 of 79 wells (39 percent) and the HA of 300 µg/L in samples from 13 of 79 wells (about 16 percent). A few (1–2) samples had concentrations of sodium, chloride, sulfate, or TDS higher than the SMCLs of 60, 250, 250, and 500 mg/L, respectively. However, dissolved sodium concentrations were higher than the HA of 20 mg/L in samples from 15 of 79 wells (nearly 20 percent). Total coliform bacteria were detected in samples from 25 of 79 wells (32 percent) but Escherichia coli were not detected in any sample. Radon-222 activities ranged from 11 to 5,100 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), with a median of 1,440 pCi/L, and exceeded the proposed and the alternate proposed drinking-water standards of 300 and 4,000 pCi/L, respectively, in samples from 60 of 79 wells (75 percent) and in samples from 2 of 79 wells (3 percent), respectively.

Groundwater samples from all wells were analyzed for dissolved methane by one contract laboratory that determined water from 19 of the 79 wells (24 percent) had concentrations of methane greater than the reporting level of 0.010 milligrams per liter (mg/L) with a maximum methane concentration of 2.5 mg/L. Methane concentrations in 18 replicate samples submitted to a second laboratory for dissolved gas and isotopic analysis generally were higher by as much as a factor of 2.7 from those determined by the first laboratory, indicating potential bias related to combined sampling and analytical methods, and therefore, caution needs to be used when comparing methane results determined by different methods. The isotopic composition of methane in 9 of 10 samples with sufficient dissolved methane (about 0.3 mg/L) for isotopic analysis is consistent with values reported for methane of microbial origin produced through carbon dioxide reduction; an isotopic shift in 1 or 2 samples may indicate subsequent methane oxidation. The low concentrations of ethane relative to methane in these samples further indicate that the methane may be of microbial origin. Groundwater samples with relatively elevated methane concentrations (near or greater than 0.3 mg/L) also had chemical compositions that differed in some respects from groundwater with relatively low methane concentrations (less than 0.3 mg/L) by having higher pH (greater than 8) and higher concentrations of sodium, lithium, boron, fluoride, arsenic, and bromide and chloride/bromide ratios indicative of mixing with a small amount of brine of probable natural occurrence.

The spatial distribution of groundwater compositions differs by topographic setting and lithology and generally shows that (1) relatively dilute, slightly acidic, oxygenated, calcium-carbonate type waters tend to occur in the uplands underlain by the undivided Poplar Gap and Packerton members of the Catskill Formation in southwestern Pike County; (2) waters of near neutral pH with the highest amounts of hardness (calcium and magnesium) generally occur in areas of intermediate altitudes underlain by other members of the Catskill Formation; and (3) waters with pH values greater than 8, low oxygen concentrations, and the highest arsenic, sodium, lithium, bromide, and methane concentrations can be present in deep wells in uplands but most frequently occur in stream valleys, especially at low altitudes (less than about 1,200 feet above North American Vertical Datum of 1988) where groundwater may be discharging regionally, such as to the Delaware River in northern and eastern Pike County. Thus, the baseline assessment of groundwater quality in Pike County prior to gas-well development shows that shallow (less than about 1,000 feet deep) groundwater generally meets primary drinking-water standards for inorganic constituents but varies spatially, with methane and some constituents present in high concentrations in brine (and connate waters from gas and oil reservoirs) present at low to moderate concentrations in some parts of Pike County.

Publication Year 2017
Title Baseline assessment of groundwater quality in Pike County, Pennsylvania, 2015
DOI 10.3133/sir20175110
Authors Lisa A. Senior, Charles A. Cravotta
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2017-5110
Index ID sir20175110
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pennsylvania Water Science Center