Study says most Berkeley County wells harbor harmful bacteria

December 21, 2000

Study says most Berkeley County wells harbor harmful bacteria

By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A study conducted by a regional conservation organization suggests that water wells in some sections of Berkeley County have more than a 60 percent chance of being contaminated with bacteria.


The study indicates at least four different bacteria are thriving in the county's groundwater, including E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria. Two other forms of bacteria that have been spotted in groundwater are known as clostridium and giardia, according to officials with the Potomac Headwaters Resource Conservation and Development Council, which conducted the study.

Clostridium and giardia can cause serious illness, officials with the organization said.

"I think when you take this home and read it, you will be shocked," Don Dirting said after delivering the report to The Berkeley County Commission Thursday.

The rapid movement of water through underground limestone terrain in the county poses a high risk of contamination to wells, the report said. Such aquifers underlie more than a third of the county, the report said.


The report said the bacteria are coming from failing residential septic systems that are leaking contaminated water into well water supplies. It is hard to tell at this point whether the bacteria could primarily be coming from human waste or animal waste, the report said.

Dirting and Roger Boyer, head of the resource organization, suggested any county residents using well water for drinking have their wells tested as soon as possible.

The Berkeley County Health Department will collect and analyze well water samples for $45, Boyer said.

Well water contaminated with bacteria can be treated through chlorination systems, which cost $600 or more, the report said.

Opinions differed on whether county residents should consider chlorinating their water before getting wells tested.

Dirting said residents using wells may want to wait and determine the results of a water test before considering chlorinating water.

Boyer suggested that anyone using well water for drinking may want to chlorinate the water now.

The study showed that no part of the county appears to have higher levels of bacteria than others. Before the study was conducted, water experts predicted that areas of the county where homes are clustered tightly together would show higher levels of bacteria in well water.

That was not the case, the report said.

In fact, bacteria levels in wells can change, suggesting that the contaminated water moves freely throughout the county, Boyer said.

It suggests the "whole system has a problem," he said.

The bacteria giardia can cause people to become extremely ill, Boyer and Dirting said. It's possible that some people in the county could be suffering from chronic nausea but are attributing it to a medical complication, Dirting said.

"Personally, I am one of those and I'm going to have my well tested," Dirting said.

E. coli and fecal coliform can come from human or animal waste. Giardia is caused by mammals, Boyer said.

Officials could not release a lot of information about giardia and clostridium Thursday.

According to a Web site operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, giardia is a microscopic parasite that can affect warm-blooded animals and humans. Although giardia was discovered in the 19th century, it was not until 1981 that the World Health Organization determined that it can cause disease, the Web site said.

"Giardia is protected by an outer shell called a cyst that allows it to survive outside the body for long periods of time. If viable cysts are ingested, giardia can cause the illness known as giardiasis, an intestinal illness which can cause nausea, anorexia, fever, and severe diarrhea," the Web site said.

Two of the Commissioners said they realized the significance of the problem.

Commissioner Robert L. Burkhart said the report shows the county needs to "get as much public water and public sewer in the county as we can."

"There is a problem out there," said Commission President D. Wayne Dunham.

It was not clear Thursday how many county residents use well water for drinking.

To conduct the study, water samples were collected from 50 wells in the county in June. The study was funded by grants from the Eastern Panhandle Conservation District, Boyer's organization, state officials and the U.S. Geological Survey, according to the report.

Several groups helped in the sampling process, including the U.S.D.A.

Residents may call The Berkeley County Health Department at 304-267-7130 to ask questions about water testing. The report can also be obtained by calling Potomac Headwaters RC&D at 304-263-4376.

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