Identifying water contamination from fossil fuel development using geochemical and isotopic fingerprints

Duke University Thesis

Fossil fuels continue to be a major component of the energy economies in North America, accounting for 60% of electricity generation in the U.S. Recent incidences (i.e. spills) and limited regulation of the fossil fuel industry has generated public concern about the risks fossil fuel development pose to water resources. Previous studies have identified negative impacts on water quality associated with the storage and disposal of coal combustion residuals, oil sands process-affected water, and oil and gas wastewater, as well as leaking of methane to groundwater in areas of hydraulic fracturing. In addition, contamination of water resources from natural (geogenic) sources has also been observed in many of the areas associated with fossil fuel development. Since naturally occurring saline water is common in some regions associated with fossil fuel explorations, delineating the effects of anthropogenic contamination sources is a major challenge for evaluating the impact of fossil fuel development on water quality.

This thesis investigates the geochemical and isotopic characteristics of wastewater from coal combustion residual storage ponds, unconventional oil and gas exploration, and oil sands mining, in an attempt to evaluate the use of geochemical and isotopic tracers to identify fossil fuel-associated wastewaters in the environment. This includes the investigation of (1) halogen (Br, I) and ammonium contents of oil and gas wastewater (OGW);(2) the lithium isotope ratios in OGW and coal combustion residuals; and (3) the inorganic geochemistry and boron, strontium and lithium isotope ratios of oil sands processed-affected water (OSPW). In three case studies, these geochemical and isotopic tools were integrated into comprehensive geochemical frameworks that investigated the (1) leaking of coal ash ponds to surface and groundwater in the southeastern United Sates; (2) geochemistry of groundwater in an area of shale gas development in West Virginia through time and space; and (3) evaluation of the sources of molybdenum in contaminated groundwater in southeastern Wisconsin and possible links to coal ash surface disposal.

These investigations illustrate a range of situations in which isotopic fingerprinting provided a unique geochemical tool that can successfully identify fossil fuel-related wastewater in the environment. These studies have also demonstrated the environmental impact upon releasing of fossil fuels wastewater to the environment. The case studies support the use of geochemical and isotope tools as robust methods to not only identify contamination of water resources by fossil fuel-related activities, but also to distinguish wastewater contamination from naturally occurring contamination in areas of fossil fuel development. These studies highlight the benefit of using a suite of geochemical tools when investigating water quality impacts.