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Drinking water health standards comparison and chemical analysis of groundwater for 72 domestic wells in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, 2016

April 19, 2019

Pennsylvania has the second highest number of residential wells of any state in the Nation with approximately 2.4 million residents that depend on groundwater for their domestic water supply. Despite the widespread reliance on groundwater in rural areas of the state, publicly available data to characterize the quality of private well water are limited. In Bradford County, more than half of the residents use groundwater from private domestic-supply wells as their primary drinking source. The quality of private well water is influenced by the regional and local setting, including the surrounding soil, geology, land use, household plumbing, and well construction. The groundwater used for domestic water supply in Bradford County is obtained primarily from shallow bedrock and from unconsolidated (glacial) deposits that overlie the bedrock. Historical land use has been predominately forested, agricultural, and residential, but more recently unconventional oil/gas development has been distributed throughout the landscape. Pennsylvania is one of only two states in the Nation without statewide water-well construction standards.

To better assess the quality of groundwater used for drinking water supply in Bradford County, data for 72 domestic wells were collected and analyzed for a wide range of constituents that could be evaluated in relation to drinking water health standards, geology, land use, and other environmental factors. Groundwater samples were collected from May through August 2016 and analyzed for physical and chemical properties, including major ions, nutrients, trace elements, volatile organic compounds, ethylene and propylene glycol, alcohols, gross-alpha/beta-particle activity, uranium, radon-222, and dissolved gases. A subset of samples was analyzed for radium isotopes (radium-226 and -228) and for the isotopic composition of methane. This study was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Northern Tier Regional Planning and Development Commission and is part of a regional effort to characterize groundwater in rural areas of Pennsylvania.

Results of the 2016 study show that groundwater quality generally met most drinking-water standards. However, a percentage of samples failed to meet maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for total coliform bacteria (49.3 percent), Escherichia coli (8.5 percent), barium (2.8 percent), and arsenic (2.8 percent); and secondary maximum contaminant levels (SMCL) for sodium (48.6 percent), manganese (30.6 percent), gross alpha and beta activity (16.7 percent), iron (11.1 percent), pH (8.3 percent), total dissolved solids (5.6 percent), chloride (1.4 percent), and aluminum (1.4 percent). Radon-222 activities exceeded the proposed drinking-water standard of 300 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) in 70.4 percent of the samples. There were no exceedances of drinking water health standards for any volatile organic compounds, and the only detections were for three trihalomethanes in one sample.

The pH of the groundwater had a large influence on chemical characteristics and ranged from 6.18 to 9.31. Generally, the higher pH samples had higher potential for elevated concentrations of several constituents, including total dissolved solids, sodium, lithium, chloride, fluoride, boron, arsenic, and methane. For the Bradford County well-water samples, calcium/bicarbonate type waters were most abundant, with others classified as sodium/bicarbonate or mixed water types including calcium-sodium/bicarbonate, calcium-sodium/bicarbonate-chloride, sodium/bicarbonate-chloride, sodium/bicarbonate-sulfate, or sodium/chloride types. Six principal components (pH, redox, hardness, chloride-bromide, strontium-barium, and molybdenum-arsenic) explained nearly 78.3 percent of the variance in the groundwater dataset.

Groundwater from 12.5 percent of the wells had concentrations of methane greater than the Pennsylvania action level of 7 milligrams per liter (mg/L); detectable methane concentrations ranged from 0.01 to 77 mg/L. In addition, low levels of ethane (as much as 0.13 mg/L) were present in seven samples with the highest methane concentrations. The isotopic composition of methane in five of these groundwater samples was consistent with the isotopic compositions reported for mud-gas logging samples from these geologic units and a thermogenic source. Isotopic composition from a sixth sample suggested the methane in that sample may be of microbial origin. Well-water samples with the higher methane concentrations also had higher pH values and elevated concentrations of sodium, lithium, boron, fluoride, arsenic, and bromide. Relatively elevated concentrations of some other constituents, such as barium and chloride, commonly were present in, but not limited to, those well-water samples with elevated methane.

Four of the six groundwater samples with the highest methane concentrations had chloride/bromide ratios that indicate mixing with a small amount of brine (0.02 percent or less) similar in composition to those reported for gas and oil well brines in Pennsylvania. In several other eastern Pennsylvania counties where gas drilling is absent, groundwater with comparable chloride/bromide ratios and chloride concentrations have been reported, implying a potential natural source of brine. Most of Bradford County well-water samples have chloride concentrations less than 20 mg/L, and those with higher chloride concentrations have chloride/bromide ratios that indicate anthropogenic sources (such as road-deicing salt and septic effluent) or brine. Brines that are naturally present may originate from deeper parts of the aquifer system, whereas anthropogenic sources are more likely to affect shallow groundwater because they occur on or near the land surface.

The available data for this study indicate that no one physical factor, such as the topographic setting, well depth, or altitude at the bottom of the well, was particularly useful for predicting those well locations with an elevated dissolved concentration of methane. The 2016 assessment of groundwater quality in Bradford County shows groundwater is generally of good quality, but methane and some constituents that occur in high concentration in naturally occurring brine and also in produced waters may be present at low to moderate concentrations in groundwater in various parts of the aquifer.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2019
Title Drinking water health standards comparison and chemical analysis of groundwater for 72 domestic wells in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, 2016
DOI 10.3133/sir20185170
Authors John W. Clune, Charles A. Cravotta
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2018-5170
Index ID sir20185170
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pennsylvania Water Science Center