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Fate and Transport of Petroleum Hydrocarbons in Soil and Ground Water at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Tennessee and Kentucky, 2002-2003

U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2005-5104
By Shannon D. Williams, David E. Ladd, and James J. Farmer

This report is available as a pdf .


In 2002 and 2003, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), by agreement with the National Park Service (NPS), investigated the effects of oil and gas production operations on ground-water quality at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (BISO) with particular emphasis on the fate and transport of petroleum hydrocarbons in soils and ground water. During a reconnaissance of ground-water-quality conditions, samples were collected from 24 different locations (17 springs, 5 water-supply wells, 1 small stream, and 1 spring-fed pond) in and near BISO. Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX) compounds were not detected in any of the water samples, indicating that no widespread contamination of ground-water resources by dissolved petroleum hydrocarbons probably exists at BISO. Additional water-quality samples were collected from three springs and two wells for more detailed analyses to obtain additional information on ambient water-quality conditions at BISO.

Soil gas, soil, water, and crude oil samples were collected at three study sites in or near BISO where crude oil had been spilled or released (before 1993). Diesel range organics (DRO) were detected in soil samples from all three of the sites at concentrations greater than 2,000 milligrams per kilogram. Low concentrations (less than 10 micrograms per kilogram) of BTEX compounds were detected in lab-analyzed soil samples from two of the sites. Hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria counts in soil samples from the most contaminated areas of the sites were not greater than counts for soil samples from uncontaminated (background) sites. The elevated DRO concentrations, the presence of BTEX compounds, and the low number of ­hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria in contaminated soils indicate that biodegradation of petroleum hydrocarbons in soils at these sites is incomplete.

Water samples collected from the three study sites were analyzed for BTEX and DRO. Ground-water samples were collected from three small springs at the two sites located on ridge tops. BTEX and DRO were not detected in any of the water samples, and petroleum hydrocarbons do not appear to have leached into ground water at these sites. Ground-water samples were collected from a small spring and from three auger holes at the third site, which is located in a stream valley. BTEX and DRO were not detected in these ground-water samples, and currently, petroleum hydrocarbons do not appear to be leaching into ground water at this site. Weathered crude oil, however, was detected at the water surface in one of the auger holes, indicating that soluble petroleum hydrocarbons may have leached into the ground water and may have migrated downgradient from the site in the past. The concentration of soluble petroleum hydrocarbons present in the ground water would depend on the concentration of the hydrocarbons in the crude oil at the site.

A laboratory study was conducted to examine the dissolution of petroleum hydrocarbons from a fresh crude oil sample collected from one of the study sites. The effective solubility of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and total xylenes for the crude oil sample was determined to be 1,900, 1,800, 220, and 580 micrograms per liter (µg/L), respectively. These results indicate that benzene and toluene could be present at concentrations greater than maximum contaminant levels (5 µg/L for benzene and 1,000 µg/L for toluene for drinking water) in ground water that comes into contact with fresh crude oil from the study area.

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