Stable lead isotopes reveal a natural source of high lead concentrations to gasoline-contaminated groundwater
Concentrations of total lead as high as 1,600 g/L were detected in gasoline-contaminated and uncontaminated groundwater at three gasoline-release sites in South Carolina. Total lead concentrations were highest in turbid groundwater samples from gasoline-contaminated and uncontaminated wells, whereas lower turbidity groundwater samples (collected using low-flow methods) had lower total lead concentrations. Dissolved lead concentrations in all wells sampled, however, were less than 15 g total lead/L, the current United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) maximum contaminant level (MCL). Because many total lead concentrations exceeded the MCL, the source of lead to the groundwater system at two of the three sites was investigated using a stable lead isotope ratio approach. Plots of the stable isotope ratios of lead (Pb) in groundwater as 207Pb/206Pb versus 208Pb/206Pb, and 208Pb/204Pb versus 206Pb/204Pb were similar to ratios characteristic of lead-based minerals in local rocks of the southeastern US, and were not similar to the stable lead isotopes ratios characteristic of distant lead ore deposits such as Broken Hill, Australia, used to produce tetraethyl lead in gasoline products prior to its phase-out and ban in the United States. Moreover, the isotopic composition of dissolved lead was equivalent to the isotopic composition of total lead in turbid samples collected from the same well, suggesting that the majority of the lead detected in the groundwater samples was associated with sediment particulates of indigenous aquifer material, rather than lead associated with spilled leaded gasoline. The results of this investigation indicate that (1) lead detected at some gasoline-release sites may be derived from the local aquifer material, rather than the gasoline release, and consequently may affect site-specific remediation goals, (2) non-low flow groundwater sampling methods, such as a disposable bailer, may result in turbid groundwater samples and high total lead concentrations, and, (3) stable lead isotopes can be used to clarify the source of lead detected above permissible levels in gasoline-contaminated groundwater systems.