Thursday, December 20, 2018

Many drinking-water wells in Southeast could be polluted by flooding from hurricanes, but very few have been tested

Graphic by The Pew Charitable Trusts; click on it to enlarge.
Though hundreds of thousands of private water wells in the Southeast may have been inundated by floodwaters after this year's hurricanes, few have been tested for contamination because most states don't require routine testing of such wells, and lawmakers have been reluctant to mandate it.

The risk of contamination is considerable: "Hurricanes Florence and Michael dumped more than 30 inches of rain on some areas stretching from Florida to North Carolina, creating a toxic soup that may have overwhelmed the nearly 650,000 homes in those areas that rely on well water, according to estimates from the National Groundwater Association," Rebecca Beitsch reports for Stateline. "More than 30 above-ground hog lagoons overflowed in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence, sending pig waste into water inundating surrounding communities. Floodwater from Florence and Michael also contained agricultural runoff, fuel and other contaminants that can seep into the aquifer or flow into man-made wells through their ground-level ventilation systems."

Health departments in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina offered free well water tests to anyone affected by the hurricanes, but fewer than 1,000 homeowners in each state took them up on it, Beitsch reports.

North Carolina is particularly at risk for such contamination; 2.4 million people in the state (about a fifth of its population) rely on private wells, the fifth-highest number in the nation. The state also has a high concentration of open-air pits full of hog or chicken feces, or toxic coal ash from coal-fired power plants.

Across all four hurricane-affected states, more 30 percent of the households that took advantage of the free testing had wells that tested positive for coliform, a bacteria that indicates contamination by surface water. In North Carolina 13 percent of wells tested positive for e. Coli, which can come from feces. Usually only 2 percent of the state's wells test positive for coliforms. And when Georgia tested 108 wells after Hurricane Michael in October, 43 percent were positive for coliforms.

Why don't more people get their wells tested? The testing is cheap or free, but a basic chlorine treatment to kill well bacteria is about $500, Merritt Partridge, vice president of Partridge Well Drilling in Jacksonville told Beitsch: "Some people are drinking water that they shouldn’t be, but they have no idea."

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