Thursday, July 7, 2011

Abandoned water wells can be life-threatening

by Lynne Geller, Outreach and Communications, Water Resources Program

The sad loss of two dogs who died recently after falling into an abandoned well on Vashon Island again brings to light the importance of properly filling in wells no longer in use.

Old abandoned water wells are fairly common in Washington State. For example, there are estimated to be thousands of abandoned wells in King County alone.

Properly closing these unused wells is called “decommissioning.” Abandoned wells are required under state law to be decommissioned as soon as possible after use stops.

Dangers of abandoned wells include injury or death; groundwater contamination

Abandoned wells pose safety and environmental problems. The greatest risk is the injury or death of children, adults and animals that fall into the well. Shallow, hand-dug wells are the most dangerous type of abandoned well.

Some of you may remember the story of Baby Jessica, an 18-month-old toddler who was trapped in an abandoned well in Texas for 2½ days in 1987. That well was only 8-inches in diameter and about 22-feet deep. Her rescue was followed worldwide. She survived, but had to go through many surgeries.

To date there are no recent reported deaths of people from a well incident in Washington. But every year there are reports of dogs and sometimes horses and donkeys falling into these often deep holes.

Abandoned wells also act as direct paths for contaminants to reach groundwater (water under the ground). These contaminants can harm the quality of the water you and your neighbors drink.

Landowner responsible for decommissioning

Washington law holds the current landowner responsible for decommissioning abandoned wells. The landowner is responsible for any injury or occurrence of contamination caused by an abandoned well not properly decommissioned.

Washington law requires that you use a licensed well driller to decommission a well. A licensed driller will have experience with well construction and decommissioning materials and methods. They also know about the local geology. All of this knowledge is necessary to safely and properly close a well. State law prohibits filling an abandoned well with “dirt” or any other unapproved material.

For more information, visit Ecology’s Well Construction and Licensing Program website.

You can also contact Bill Lum, the Well Construction and Licensing Program Coordinator, directly at 360-407-6648,; or well construction staff at any of Ecology’s regional offices.

A 7-year-old yellow Labrador retriever named Deiter fell down an 85-foot well near Chehalis in November 2010. He struggled for hours to keep his head above water before being rescued by volunteer firefighters and family members. He had some cuts and bruises but survived. Deiter is one of hundreds of animals who fall into abandoned wells each year, many of whom are not as lucky as Deiter. [Photos reprinted with permission of “The Olympian”. Original story by Brandon Swanson, published Nov. 13, 2010]

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