Tertiary-Butyl Alcohol in Hydrocarbon-Rich Groundwater Basin, Colorado

Quast KW, Levine AD, Kester JE, Fordham CL. Forensic analysis of tertiary-butyl alcohol (TBA) detections in a hydrocarbon-rich groundwater basin. Environmental monitoring and assessment. 2016 Apr;188(4):208. doi: 10.1007/s10661-016-5193-7.

Tertiary-butyl alcohol (TBA), a high-production volume (HPV) chemical, was sporadically detected in groundwater and coalbed methane (CBM) wells in southeastern Colorado’s hydrocarbon-rich Raton Basin. TBA concentrations in shallow water wells averaged 75.1 μg/L, while detections in deeper CBM wells averaged 14.4 μg/L. The detection of TBA prompted a forensic investigation to try to identify potential sources. Historic and recent data were reviewed to determine if there was a discernable pattern of TBA occurrence. Supplemental samples from domestic water wells, monitor wells, CBM wells, surface waters, and hydraulic fracturing (HF) fluids were analyzed for TBA in conjunction with methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) and ethyl tertiary-butyl ether (ETBE), proxies for evidence of contamination from reformulated gasoline or associated oxygenates. Exploratory microbiological sampling was conducted to determine if methanotrophic organisms co-occurred with TBA in individual wells. Meaningful comparisons of historic TBA data were limited due to widely varying reporting limits. Mapping of TBA occurrence did not reveal any spatial patterns or physical associations with CBM operations or contamination plumes. Additionally, TBA was not detected in HF fluids or surface water samples. Given the widespread use of TBA in industrial and consumer products, including water well completion materials, it is likely that multiple diffuse sources exist. Exploratory data on stable isotopes, dissolved gases, and microbial profiling provide preliminary evidence that methanotrophic activity may be producing TBA from naturally occurring isobutane. Reported TBA concentrations were significantly below a conservative risk-based drinking water screening level of 8000 μg/L derived from animal toxicity data.

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