Elevated levels of diesel range organic compounds in groundwater near Marcellus gas operations are derived from surface activities

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Drollette, Brian D.
Hoelzer, Kathrin
Warner, Nathaniel R.
Darrah, Thomas H.
Karatum, Osman
O’Connor, Megan P.
Nelson, Robert K.
Fernandez, Loretta A.
Reddy, Christopher M.
Vengosh, Avner
Jackson, Robert B.
Elsner, Martin
Plata, Desiree L.
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Hydrophobic organic compounds
High volume hydraulic fracturing
Natural gas extraction
Transport mechanisms
Hundreds of organic chemicals are utilized during natural gas extraction via high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF). However, it is unclear if these chemicals, injected into deep shale horizons, reach shallow groundwater aquifers and impact local water quality, either from deep underground injection sites or from the surface or shallow subsurface. Here, we report detectable levels of organic compounds in shallow groundwater samples from private residential wells overlying the Marcellus Shale in northeastern Pennsylvania. Analyses of purgeable and extractable organic compounds from 64 groundwater samples revealed trace levels of volatile organic compounds, well below the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant levels, and low levels of both gasoline range (GRO; 0-8 ppb) and diesel range organic compounds (DRO; 0-157 ppb). A compound-specific analysis revealed the presence of bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate, which is a disclosed HVHF additive, that was notably absent in a representative geogenic water sample and field blanks. Pairing these analyses with 1) inorganic chemical fingerprinting of deep saline groundwater, 2) characteristic noble gas isotopes, and 3) spatial relationships between active shale gas extraction wells and wells with disclosed environmental health and safety (EHS) violations, we differentiate between a chemical signature associated with naturally occurring saline groundwater and a one associated with alternative anthropogenic routes from the surface (e.g., accidental spills or leaks). The data support a transport mechanism of DRO to groundwater via accidental release of fracturing fluid chemicals derived from the surface rather than subsurface flow of these fluids from the underlying shale formation.
Author Posting. © The Author(s), 2015. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of National Academy of Sciences for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of American 112 (2015): 13184-13189, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1511474112 .
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