Nicolette Bugher

MIT Department: Civil and Environmental Engineering
Undergraduate Institution: University of Delaware
Faculty Mentor: Desiree Plata
Research Supervisor: Boya Xiong, PhD, Yunpo Li


I am a fourth year undergraduate student of Environmental Engineering at the University of Delaware. I have a concentration in Water Quality and Water Resources. I am interested in the great importance that water resource management plays in our society. My previous research touched on some of the emerging chemical contaminants in our water today. I hope to expand my knowledge on identifying chemical contamination in water and understanding the effect on both human and ecological health. I hope to obtain my PhD in Environmental Engineering. Some of my interests outside of academia include hiking, exploring new places, reading, and spending time with friends.

2019 Research Abstract

Volatile organic contaminant levels in drinking water adjacent to hydraulic fracturing activities in Ohio and Pennsylvania

Bugher1, L. Glist, B. Xiong2, and D. Plata2

1Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Delaware
2 Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

High-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) is an engineered process in which millions of gallons of fluids containing organic chemicals are pressurized against shale rock formations to extract natural gas that is tightly trapped in the minimally permeable formations. Organic chemical additives used in the HVHF processes, though also ubiquitous to many industrial processes, have been detected in areas of HVHF. Many of these chemicals are not disclosed to the public and have unknown human health effects. In this study, we collected the largest groundwater samples size in the region to date (~300) to investigate the impact of HVHF on groundwater. These water samples supply drinking water to homes within 5km of shale gas wells in northeastern Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, where Marcellus and Utica formations are actively under development. Using purge and trap extraction coupled with gas chromatography, we identified and quantified sixty volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that were historical industrial pollutants suggested by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We found that VOCs such as vinyl chloride, chloroform, toluene, and bromochloromethane, are present in household drinking water, but fall well below the maximum concentration level standards set by the EPA. The VOCs determined in this study will ultimately be used to correlate organic chemical exposure from drinking water with adverse health effects in newborns and mothers. Overall, this study demonstrates that no systematic contamination of groundwaters occurred in this heavily hydraulically fractured region.  As the natural gas industry continues to expand and operate, VOC loads may change and monitoring in the interest of public health should continue.