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Nitrate and Selected Pesticides in Groundwater of the Mid-Atlantic Region

By Ator, Scott W. and Ferrari, Matthew J.

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Abstract

Data from more than 850 sites were compiled and analyzed to document the occurrence of nitrate and pesticides in Groundwater of the Mid-Atlantic region as part of the Mid-Atlantic Integrated Assessment program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Only those data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey as part of regional networks between October 1985 and September 1996 (inclusive) were used in the analyses, and the data were examined to ensure analytical results are not biased toward sites at the same location or sites sampled multiple times during this period. Regional data are available for most of the Mid-Atlantic region but large spatial gaps in available data do exist.

Nitrate was detected in nearly three-quarters of the samples for which it was analyzed, commonly at levels that suggest anthropogenic sources. Ten percent of samples contained nitrate at concentrations exceeding the Federal Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 10 milligrams per liter as nitrogen. Pesticide compounds (including atrazine, metolachlor, prometon, simazine, and desethylatrazine, an atrazine degradate) were detected in about half of the samples for which they were analyzed, but rarely at concentrations exceeding established MCL’s. The most commonly detected pesticide compounds were desethylatrazine and atrazine.

The occurrence of nitrate and pesticides in Groundwater of the Mid-Atlantic region is related to land cover and rock type. Likely sources of nitrate and pesticides to Groundwater include agricultural and urban land-use practices; rock type affects the movement of these compounds into and through the Groundwater system. Nitrate concentrations in the compiled data set are significantly higher in Groundwater in agricultural areas than in urban or forested areas, but concentrations in areas of row crops are statistically indistinguishable from those in areas of pastures. Detection frequencies of atrazine, desethylatrazine, and simazine are indistinguishable among urban areas, row crops, and pastures. Prometon was most commonly detected in Groundwater in urban areas. Groundwater samples from forested areas typically contained the lowest concentrations of nitrate and detection frequencies of pesticides. Concentrations of nitrate and detection frequencies of pesticides were significantly higher in samples from carbonate rocks than in those from any other rock type. Most areas of the Mid-Atlantic region that are underlain by carbonate rocks have been developed for agricultural or urban use and the solution channels that are typical of carbonate rocks allow for relatively rapid transport of surficial contaminants throughout the Groundwater system. Nitrate concentrations in unconsolidated aquifers were among the lowest for all rock types, possibly because of denitrification in organic-rich subsoils and shallow sediments.


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