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Groundwater quality for 75 domestic wells in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, 2014

March 6, 2017

Groundwater is a major source of drinking water in Lycoming County and adjacent counties in north-central and northeastern Pennsylvania, which are largely forested and rural and are currently undergoing development for hydrocarbon gases. Water-quality data are needed for assessing the natural characteristics of the groundwater resource and the potential effects from energy and mineral extraction, timber harvesting, agriculture, sewage and septic systems, and other human influences.

This report, prepared in cooperation with Lycoming County, presents analytical data for groundwater samples from 75 domestic wells sampled throughout Lycoming County in June, July, and August 2014. The samples were collected using existing pumps and plumbing prior to any treatment and analyzed for physical and chemical characteristics, including nutrients, major ions, metals and trace elements, volatile organic compounds, gross-alpha particle and gross beta-particle activity, uranium, and dissolved gases, including methane and radon-222.

Results indicate groundwater quality generally met most drinking-water standards, but that some samples exceeded primary or secondary maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for arsenic, iron, manganese, total dissolved solids (TDS), chloride, pH, bacteria, or radon-222. Arsenic concentrations were higher than the MCL of 10 micrograms per liter (µg/L) in 9 of the 75 (12 percent) well-water samples, with concentrations as high as 23.6 μg/L; arsenic concentrations were higher than the health advisory level (HAL) of 2 μg/L in 23 samples (31 percent). Total iron concentrations exceeded the secondary maximum contaminant level (SMCL) of 300 μg/L in 20 of the 75 samples. Total manganese concentrations exceeded the SMCL of 50 μg/L in 20 samples and the HAL of 300 μg/L in 2 of those samples. Three samples had chloride concentrations that exceeded the SMCL of 250 milligrams per liter (mg/L); two of those samples exceeded the SMCL of 500 mg/L for TDS. The pH ranged from 5.3 to 9.15 and did not meet the SMCL range of 6.5 to 8.5 in 22 samples, with 17 samples having a pH less than 6.5 and 8 samples having pH greater than 8.5. Generally, the samples that had elevated TDS, chloride, or arsenic concentrations had high pH.

Total coliform bacteria were detected in 39 of 75 samples (52 percent), with Escherichia coli detected in 10 of those 39 samples. Radon-222 activities ranged from non-detect to 7,420 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), with a median of 863 pCi/L, and exceeded the proposed drinking-water standard of 300 pCi/L in 50 (67 percent) of the 75 samples; radon-222 activities were higher than the alternative proposed standard of 4,000 pCi/L in 3 samples.

Water from 15 of 75 (20 percent) wells had concentrations of methane greater than the reporting level of 0.01 mg/L; detectable methane concentrations ranged from 0.04 to 16.8 mg/L. Two samples had methane concentrations (13.1 and 16.8 mg/L) exceeding the action level of 7 mg/L. Low levels of ethane (up to 0.12 mg/L) were present in the five samples with the highest methane concentrations (near or above 1 mg/L) that were analyzed for hydrocarbon compounds and isotopic composition. The isotopic composition of methane in four of these groundwater samples, from the Catskill and Lock Haven Formations and the Hamilton Group, have sample carbon isotopic ratio delta values (carbon-13/carbon-12) ranging from –42.36 to –36.08 parts per thousand (‰) and hydrogen isotopic ratio delta values (deuterium/protium) ranging from –212.0 to –188.4 ‰, which are consistent with the isotopic compositions reported for mud-gas logging samples from these geologic units and a thermogenic source of the methane. However, the isotopic composition and ratios of methane to ethane in a fifth sample indicate the methane in that sample may be of microbial origin that subsequently underwent oxidation. The fifth sample had the highest concentration of methane, 16.8 mg/L, with an carbon isotopic ratio delta values of -50.59 ‰ and a hydrogen isotopic ratio delta values of -209.7 ‰.

The six well-water samples with the highest methane concentrations also had among the highest pH values (8.25 to 9.15) and elevated concentrations of sodium, lithium, boron, fluoride, arsenic, and bromide. Relatively elevated concentrations of some other constituents, such as barium, strontium, and chloride, commonly were present in, but not limited to, those well-water samples with elevated methane.

Three 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 at undetermined depth below the freshwater aquifer and for gas and oil well brines in Pennsylvania. The sample with the highest methane concentration and most other samples with low methane concentrations (less than about 1 mg/L) have chloride/bromide ratios that indicate predominantly anthropogenic sources of chloride, such as road-deicing salt, septic systems, and (or) animal waste. Brines that are naturally present may originate from deeper parts of the aquifer system, while anthropogenic sources are more likely to affect shallow groundwater because they occur on or near the land-surface.

The spatial distribution of groundwater compositions generally indicate that (1) uplands along the western border of Lycoming County usually have dilute, slightly acidic oxygenated, calcium-bicarbonate type waters; (2) intermediate altitudes or areas of carbonate bedrock usually have water of near neutral pH, with highest amounts of hardness (calcium and magnesium); (3) stream valleys, low elevations where groundwater may be discharging, and deep wells in uplands usually have water with pH values greater than 8 and highest arsenic, sodium, lithium, bromide concentrations. Geochemical modeling indicated that for samples with elevated pH, sodium, lithium, bromide, and alkalinity, the water chemistry could have resulted by dissolution of calcite (calcium carbonate) combined with cation-exchange and mixing with a small amount of brine. Through cation-exchange reactions between water and bedrock, which are equivalent to processes in a water softener, calcium ions released by calcite dissolution are exchanged for sodium ions on clay minerals. Thus, the assessment of groundwater quality in Lycoming County indicates groundwater is generally of good quality, but various parts of Lycoming County can have groundwater with low to moderate concentrations of methane and other constituents that appear in naturally present brine and produced waters from gas and oil wells at high concentrations."

Publication Year 2017
Title Groundwater quality for 75 domestic wells in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, 2014
DOI 10.3133/sir20165143
Authors Eliza L. Gross, Charles A. Cravotta
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2016-5143
Index ID sir20165143
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pennsylvania Water Science Center