Abandoned Wells: A hidden danger

Abandoned wells can be a danger to drinking water wells.

Abandoned wells can be a danger to drinking water wells.

When it comes to unused wells, out of sight shouldn’t mean out of mind. These structures aren’t something you can just forget about. With their rusted casings and rotted well covers, abandoned wells are one of the biggest threats to groundwater quality. They can also create a physical threat, trapping people and animals and even causing death in some unlucky cases.


An abandoned well can channel water directly from the surface to the aquifer below. If that water carries soil, manure or other nasty stuff with it, it can contaminate nearby wells and even the entire aquifer.


And it’s not just old drinking water wells that pose risks. Wells and holes that have been dug for mineral exploration, data collection, groundwater monitoring and construction sites are just as dangerous. Watch out for any hole on your property that allows contaminants to reach the groundwater or that’s big enough to trap children, pets or wildlife.


Do some detective work

It’s estimated that there are millions of abandoned wells and drilled holes across the United States. Even if your household is now connected to the municipal water system, previous owners may have relied on their own well — a well that can create problems today.


So how do you find them? This may take a bit of detective work, especially because so many old wells were never documented. Fortunately, you can find clues. Look out for pipes sticking out of the ground, small buildings that may have been a well house, dips in the ground, out-of-use windmills and concrete vaults or pits.


Taking a look at old maps and property documents can also help you uncover old wells. And don’t forget about asking neighbors or previous owners.


How to decommission abandoned wells

Once you stop using a well, you need to “decommission” it to protect the groundwater underneath. In most of the United States, it’s the responsibility of the property owner to decommission old wells. This means you’re also liable for any water contamination or injury created by an unused well on your property.


But this isn’t a job to handle yourself — in most cases, you’ll need to call in the experts. In New York State, for example, state regulations require you to work with a certificate-holding well driller or decommissioner.


Depending on the type of well, you may need to clean out the pumps, screens, pipes and other debris and then fill the entire hole with an approved material. In other cases, you can simply cap the top of the well to stop pollutants, people or animals from getting in.


How much you’ll have to dig into your pocket varies by state and by service provider. The depth and width of your well and the geology will also influence the price. In some states, there may be programs in place to help you pay the decommissioning costs, which range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.


For your own health — and the health of your neighbors — that’s a price worth paying.

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