Preliminary investigation of groundwater quality near a Michigan cemetery, 2016–17

Scientific Investigations Report 2018-5120
Prepared in cooperation with the Lansing Board of Water and Light and the Lansing Wellhead Protection Team
By: , and 



The potential effect of cemetery leachate on groundwater quality in the United States has rarely been studied. Nutrients and other constituents associated with decomposition and burial processes (such as embalming) have the potential to reach shallow groundwater and could affect nearby drinking-water sources. The objective of this preliminary investigation was to evaluate the potential effect of cemetery leachate on shallow groundwater quality near Mt. Hope Cemetery in Ingham County, Lansing, Michigan, which is within the Well-head Protection Area for the City of Lansing. The constituents measured in this study include nutrients, trace metals, formaldehyde, fecal indicator bacteria, bacterial pathogen genes, contaminants of emerging concern (including pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and wastewater indicator compounds), and age-dating compounds. Three monitoring wells were installed 7 to 12 feet below land surface downgradient from the cemetery and sampled quarterly for 1 year.  A fourth well (Fenner) was sampled to determine groundwater conditions outside the potential effects of cemetery leachate; samples from this well were collected near the water table.

Nitrogen and phosphorus compounds were present at higher concentrations in two of the three monitoring wells (wells C1 and C3) than in the Fenner well. Formaldehyde and pharmaceuticals were not detected in any of the wells; however, several trace metals, including arsenic, manganese, and aluminum, were present in high concentrations, with arsenic concentrations typically exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking-water standard. Several wastewater indicator compounds, including atrazine, phenol, p-cresol, camphor, and skatole, were detected in the monitoring wells. Microbial data indicate the presence of staphylococci, enterococci, and Escherichia coli (E. coli), with the highest concentrations being measured in the same two monitoring wells that exhibited elevated concentrations of nutrients in the groundwater (wells C1 and C3). Several bacterial pathogen genes were detected, including several Enterococcus species (spp.)—vanB (vancomycin-resistant enterococci), shiga-toxin-producing E. coli genes (including eaeA [attachment virulence trait] and stx1 [moderate toxin]), and the E. coli 16s ribosomal RNA (rDNA) gene ( E. coli species marker). These results were similar to results of studies conducted in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, in which concentrations of bacteria, metals, and nutrients were elevated in groundwater near cemeteries.

Suggested Citation

Brennan, A.K., Givens, C.E., Prokopec, J.G., and Hoard, C.J., 2018, Preliminary investigation of groundwater quality near a Michigan cemetery, 2016–17: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2018–5120, 23 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Approach
  • Effect of Cemetery Leachate on Groundwater Quality
  • Other Potential Sources of Contaminants to Cemeteries
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • References Cited
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Preliminary investigation of groundwater quality near a Michigan cemetery, 2016–17
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2018-5120
DOI 10.3133/sir20185120
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Michigan Water Science Center, Upper Midwest Water Science Center
Description vi, 23 p.
Country United States
State Michigan
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details