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Abandoned Water Wells: Health and Safety Risks

Updated on December 17, 2017
cam8510 profile image

Science, nature and the environment, with regard to human impact, are subjects to which Chris applies his passions for research and writing.

About This Article

This article discusses three types of water wells. When abandoned, these wells present specific dangers to animals, people and the local water supply.

Abandoned Water Wells

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There Are Millions of Abandoned Water Wells Across the United States

According to the National Groundwater Association, there are millions of abandoned water wells across the United States. As properties have been bought and sold, generation after generation, each owner would have needed a water source. This normally meant that a well of some type was put in. Each piece of property, therefore, potentially has multiple well sites. Many of these wells have simply been left unused rather than being capped or sealed as the laws of most states require.

Three Types of Water Wells

There are three types of wells which have been used through the years for homes and farms.

  1. Drilled wells: These wells are the most common and were created by drilling, usually 2 to 8 inches in diameter and in excess of 50 feet, to the aquifer in a layer of sand and gravel, or fractured rock.
  2. Driven wells: these wells are created by literally pounding a spike shaped well point into the ground like a nail. This is used in locations where the water table is fairly close to the surface. These wells are usually 1 to 2 inches in diameter and 10 to 40 feet deep.
  3. Hand dug wells: These are the largest in diameter, usually at least 2 feet and are 10 to 50 feet deep.

Health and Safety Issues Associated With Abandoned Wells

There are health and safety issues associated with abandoned water wells. The contamination of ground water as a result of hazardous chemicals being washed into the well is one such concern. Another is the potential for a person or animal to fall into a well, causing injury or death.

  • Surface water carrying fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides etc can drain down the well, directly into the aquifer, the water supply for other homes in the area.
  • Domesticated and wild animals can become trapped, injured or killed by abandoned wells. Animals which fall into wells and die can cause well water contamination.
  • Children and adults can fall into abandoned wells resulting in injury or death.
  • Abandoned wells are sometimes used for disposing of used motor oil, and other hazardous waste as well as animal carcasses. All of these can potentially lead to ground water contamination.
  • Abandoned wells located near where animals are housed, such as cattle, chickens and dogs, can lead to ground water contamination as animal wastes are transported directly to the aquifer rather than being naturally filtered by soil and sand.

Windmills Signify the Presence of a Well

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How to Identify the Location of an Abandoned Water Well

If you are purchasing land, it would be good to locate any abandoned water wells on the property before finalizing the deal. It could then be made a requirement for the seller to cap the well prior to closing. If you have property and aren't sure if there is an abandoned well on it, here are some steps you can take to locate one if it exists.

Physical indications of the potential presence of an abandoned water well:

  • Windmill
  • concrete vault/pit with boards covering the well.
  • pipes sticking out of ground.
  • Slight depression in the ground

Documents:

  • Survey maps.
  • Owners records-Bills, easements or deeds.
  • County well index records.
  • Photographs-Old photographs and aerial photography.

Individuals:

  • Previous owners
  • Neighbors
  • Contractors (well drillers, pump installers, plumbers, remodelers) who have worked on the property.
  • Inspectors (well, plumbing, building, septic system).

A Well Capped Well

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What to do With an Abandoned Water Well

In the United States, each state has its own regulations regarding the decommissioning of old water wells. These regulations may include one or more of the following:

  • Some states require that the well be filled with cement-bentonite grout or bentonite clay chips.
  • Straight portland cement is discouraged because it shrinks, creating channels through which surface water can drain into the aquifer.
  • Other states require that wells be capped with welded or threaded caps.
  • All well equipment, including pipes and pumps must be removed.
  • Some states require that capping and decommissioning be carried out by a licensed well driller.

Check with your state government if you have an issue with an abandoned well.

Jessica McClure, "Everybody's Baby," The Most Famous Case of a Person Falling into an Abandoned Water Well

Hand dug wells present a safety risk because they can be from 2 to 5 feet in diameter and from 10 to 50 feet deep. Humans and animals can be injured or killed by falling into these wells.

On Wednesday, October 14, 1987, eighteen month old Jessica McClure was playing with other toddlers at her aunt's daycare center. Jessica fell into an 18 inch well pipe. Nearly 60 hours later, she was rescued by emergency personnel, as the world watched via news programs.

Baby Jessica McClure, The Rescue, 1987 CBS News With Dan Rather

Contact the Department of Environmental Quality in Your State

Considering the potential safety and health concerns associated with abandoned water wells, anyone who has one of these wells on their property should seek specific information from their state regarding capping and decommissioning. For information about regulations concerning uncapped water wells, contact the Department of Environmental Quality in your state.

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    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Akriti Mattu, this hub is a result of a short story I wrote about a little girl who fell into a well. I did so much research on that story, I thought it would make a good hub about abandoned wells. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 

      3 years ago from Shimla, India

      This is a hub that makes us aware. You've raised an important issue here.

      Voted up.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      3 years ago from Shelton

      We have water wells in most of our higher ground areas, but they are well capped.. or capped well.. or our wells are capped well.. hmm.. nonetheless this is an important hub.. great share and should be hub of the day.. voted useful my friend :)

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Easy Exercise, Thanks for visiting and commenting. FYI, I just added quite a bit more information to the article, even since you visited.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Peg, Thank you for the comments. After reading what you had to say, I updated by adding some information about accidents from around the world. I also added a poll and an update on Jessica McClure. I appreciate the input.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Venkatachari M, Thanks for reading the article. I've just updated by adding some information about accidents from around the world. I've also added a poll and an update on Jessica McClure. Thanks for your comments.

    • Easy Exercise profile image

      Kelly A Burnett 

      3 years ago from United States

      Very pragmatic - thank you for educating us!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Out in the countryside near us I have spotted several old wells that I'm sure have not been capped properly. We live in an unincorporated area so there are no guidelines or restrictions imposed. Your article points to many reasons why these potentially dangerous traps need to be addressed. And yes, I do remember Baby Jessica. I wonder if the experience affected her in later life.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      3 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very interesting facts about abandoned wells and safety concerns. We have many tales of babies and grown ups falling into these wells. How horrible it would have been for those babies lying for days trapped in them while rescue operations are being carried out.

      Your concern is a real and serious one. Thanks for bringing awareness.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Ruby, That just leaves me speechless and brokenhearted. I am so sorry for what happened to your sister. I appreciate you mentioning it, but that has to be very hard for you to talk about. This is such a serious issue. My heart goes out to you and your sister, and I wish all good things for your family. Thank you for speaking up, Ruby.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I remember Baby Jessica, the whole world prayed for her as it was played out on TV. My sister Eva fell in an old abandoned well and was paralized from the waist down. This happened in Atlanta, Ga. She was an artist and had driven out in the country to paint. She finished painting a beautiful picture of blooming cherry trees, she wanted to get a full view of the picture so she started backing up, she stepped into a well that was uncovered. She fell on steel pipes breaking her back, arm and leg. I'm not sure what kind of well it was, possibly an old oil well. She was unable to place a lawsuit because there was a no trespassing sign posted that she had overlooked. Your hub is very important. Wells of any kind not covered are dangerous.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Mary, good point. City folk would have no reason to have any knowledge about wells. Thank you for reading in light of that fact.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      3 years ago from New York

      Of course city folk know nothing about wells. Sorry, I don't mean to make light of a serious subject but it is true.

      Knowing an old well is on your property is certainly the first step. Everyone here watched and held their breath as Baby Jessica was rescued. Good subject to raise awareness.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      DzyMsLizzy, Thanks for dropping in. wow, 200 feet down. That's a deep well. It does sound like yours is in a good place. It isn't in danger of allowing contaminants in and no critters are going to fall down their either. Nicely covered. Have a great weekend.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Audrey, thanks for stopping. I appreciate you taking time to read this article and to comment. Nice seeing you here today.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Faith, after I wrote the short story about the little girl and crows, I had to do something with what I learned about wells. This seemed like a good approach. Thanks for reading.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Jasmeetk, thank you for stopping by my hub. It is very nice meeting you here. I'm glad you found the article useful.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      3 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Yes, the Baby Jessica story was huge national news. I do remember that.

      At the time, I lived in a medium-sized suburban town, and wells were the last thing on my mind, supplied as we were with city water.

      However, when I moved to my current location, we do have a well. We also have city water for the house; the well only serves the landscaping.

      It is a drilled well of long-standing--the original owners used it for their main water supply, long before there was a city here. However, the well motor and holding tank are all fully operational, and the shaft is far too small for anything much larger than a rat to fall into, should it ever become unused/abandoned. Additionally, when we built our shop, we incorporated the well, so it is now inside the building, and not outside where it might be a hazard. Our aquifer is 200 feet down, and despite the drought we're having here in CA, shows no signs of drying up. Fingers crossed. I believe if that well ever becomes "abandoned," it will be long after we are dead and gone.

      Excellent article full of great advice and information. Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      3 years ago from California

      I too remember Baby Jessica--thank you for shedding light on this huge problem Chris

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      3 years ago from southern USA

      Important hub and I do hope those take it upon themselves to make sure the abandoned wells are covered and all the other means of making it safe for the environment and people.

      I remember Baby Jessica!

      Great hub and well-presented, Cam.

      Up interesting and useful tweeting, pinning, G+ and sharing

      Blessings

    • Jasmeetk profile image

      Jasmeet Kaur 

      3 years ago from India

      abondoned wells are actually a concern about safety. Anyone can fall into it. They should be covered.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Ann, the Baby Jessica story was huge here as it unfolded back in '87. I had tears in my eyes again as I watched it while working on this article. Thanks for reading. Have a nice weekend.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      3 years ago from SW England

      I don't remember hearing about those two but there have been instances here. Most wells here are in people's gardens but there must be some in open farmland too. I'm sure there are similar regulations but, as you say, not everyone adheres to them.

      Good to make people aware of such things as it might save a life or two.

      Ann

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Do you remember Jessica McClure, aka, Baby Jessica?

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