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Molly McLaughlin

Contact Info

Email: molls.mclaughlin at

Room number/Building: W002, Plant Sciences Building


I was born and raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia and graduated with a B.S. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2011. After graduating from Georgia Tech, I moved to southern West Virginia and began working for Energy Efficient West Virginia, a local non-profit that advocates for energy efficiency at the Public Service Commission, at the state legislature and through work with local organizations and municipal governments.

In August 2013, I moved to Fort Collins, CO to begin my master’s with Dr. Jens Blotevogel and Dr. Thomas Borch. I graduated with my master’s degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering in May 2016 and am now working towards my PhD in Environmental Engineering.

Project Summary

Assessment of Water Quality and Toxicity Downstream of National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Oil and Gas Produced Water Discharges
The water generated from oil and gas (O&G) reservoirs , called produced water (PW), is the largest volume waste stream associated with O&G extraction, with over 3 trillion liters produced annually in the U.S. Because of its origins, PW contains elevated levels of toxic petroleum hydrocarbons, salts, heavy metals, naturally occurring radioactive materials and any remaining drilling, stimulation or well maintenance chemicals. Many water-scarce western states can take advantage of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) which permits PW to be released to the environment for agricultural uses if it is “of good enough quality.” This requirement is not clearly defined through permissible concentrations, however, and the locally and temporally varying composition of PW discharges is largely unknown.

The goal of this project is to characterize potential environmental and health impacts of PW discharges on downstream water quality. PW-impacted water samples have been collected from 30 different locations throughout an oil field in Wyoming. Contaminants of concern including were identified using various advanced analytical techniques to conduct non-targeted analysis. Additionally, bioassays were used to quantify genotoxicity. Preliminary results show increased mutation rates in PW-impacted samples as compared to unimpacted upstream water samples. Surfactants, chemicals commonly used in stimulation and well maintenance processes, have also been found in samples with increased mutagenicity. The results of this study will be used to assess the efficacy of treatment strategies between operators, and ultimately help regulators to effectively and safely manage produced water discharges for beneficial use.

Degradation of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals in Agricultural Soils
Hydraulic fracturing is a widely-used technology that enables and enhances oil and gas extraction from unconventional geological formations. The fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing process, which contain water, proppant, and a complex mixture of chemicals, have the potential to mix with nearby aquifers or surface water when handled or stored improperly. Hydraulic fracturing frequently occurs on agricultural land. Yet the extent of sorption, transformation, and interactions among the numerous organic frac fluid and oil and gas wastewater constituents upon environmental release is unknown. This study aimed to advance our current understanding of processes that control the environmental fate and toxicity of commonly used hydraulic fracturing chemicals, including surfactants (polyethylene glycols), biocides (glutaraldehyde) and friction reducers (polyacrylamide). Results of this studied showed that these commonly used chemicals and salt, which is present in produced water, impact the degradation rate and pathways other oil and gas chemicals. These findings highlight the necessity to consider co-contaminant effects when we evaluate the risk of frac fluid additives and oil and gas wastewater constituents in agricultural soils in order to fully understand their human health impacts, likelihood for crop uptake, and potential for groundwater contamination. Link to this publication.

Wheat Uptake Studies
In collaboration with Drs. Linsey Shariq and Tim Gunn at UC Davis, we are analyzing wheat plants for the uptake of organic chemicals associated with oil and gas. In this greenhouse study, wheat plants were watered with a synthetic fracturing fluid that contained both inorganic and organic chemicals associated with hydraulic fracturing fluid and produced water. After extraction of organics from the seeds, stems and soil, samples will be analyzed using LC-QQQ to determine if uptake of organics occurred.

For more details about the research conducted in the Borch group please click here.

Recent Publications

McLaughlin, M.; Borch, T.; Blotevogel, J. Spills of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals on Agricultural Topsoil: Biodegradation, Sorption, and Co-Contaminant Interactions. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2016, 50 (11), pp 6071–6078. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b00240

Burgos, W.D.; Meza, L.C.; Tasker, T.L.; Geeza, T.J.; Drohan, P.J.; Liu, X.; Landis, J.; Blotevogel, J.; McLaughlin, M.C.; Borch, T.; Warner, N.R.: Watershed-scale Impacts from Surface Water Disposal of Oil and Gas Wastewater. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2017, 51, 8851-8860.

Oetjen, K.; Giddings, C.G.S.; McLaughlin, M.; Nell, M.; Blotevogel, J.; Helbling, D.E.; Mueller, D.; Higgins, C.P.: Current Analytical Methods for the Characterization of Organic Contaminants in Flowback and Produced Water: Potentials and Challenges. Trends in Environmental Analytical Chemistry 2017, 15, 12-23.

For publications in the Borch group please click here.


Jens Blotevogel , Colorado State University,

Previous Institutions

Undergraduate Research, Dr. Martial Taillefert, Georgia Institute of Technology

Undergraduate Research, Dr. Athanasios Nenes, Georgia Institute of Technology

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