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Abandoned Water Wells: Health and Safety Risks

Updated on December 17, 2017
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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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