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Water well study sparks growth concerns

December 30, 2000

Water well study sparks growth concerns



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A study that suggests water wells in some sections of the county may be contaminated with bacteria has prompted new concerns about residential growth in the county.

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said the study should serve as a warning that the county needs to re-examine how it regulates growth. Unger said the county often reacts to growth rather than planning for it.

Housing subdivisions are often built before the county extended sewer service and other needed services, forcing the county to play catch-up, Unger said.

"Lack of growth management has allowed this to happen," he said.

The well water problem came to light a little over a week ago when a regional resource conservation organization released results of a study it conducted on the quality of groundwater in Berkeley County. The study suggested that wells in some sections of the county have more than a 60 percent chance of being contaminated with bacteria including E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria.

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County officials have not recommended that residents take any special precautions.

The report by the Potomac Headwaters Resource Conservation and Development Council said the contamination could be caused by leaks from failing residential septic systems into well water supplies.

The county is trying to rapidly extend public sewer service to replace its dependence on septic systems.

Unger said the county needs to reassess how it regulates growth, beginning with identifying areas where high growth is expected in coming years. Then an effort should be made to extend central sewer service, public water and other utilities to those areas before growth occurs, Unger said.

Unger said the contaminated groundwater is an example of growth-related problems that will only get more complicated if measures are not taken to address them. He said increased traffic congestion in the county is another indication of potential problems related to growth.

"This is only the tip of the iceberg. We have to come together to address this issue or it's going to be too late," Unger said.

Unger's concerns are shared by others.

Inwood resident Edgar Mason, who said he has had to contend with increasing traffic volume around the rapidly growing southern part of the county, refers to the Berkeley County Planning Commission as the "crisis management government organization."

Often, housing developers come to the planning commission for approval of subdivisions but there are insufficient road systems and schools to serve them, said Mason.

"People here better wake up and take a look at this situation. The quality of life is going down the tubes," Mason said.

Mason is chairman of the Inwood Watershed Committee, formed to address basement flooding in Inwood area homes during wet periods. He is worried that the floodwater getting into homes could also be contaminated.

Newly elected Berkeley County Commissioner Howard Strauss is also concerned about the rate of growth.

In the 1970s, the county saw the need to expand, but now priorities need to change, Strauss said.

"Now we are having a growth explosion in Berkeley County," said Strauss.

Strauss said he supports "pulling in" growth to designated areas rather than allowing growth to spread throughout the county.

Berkeley County Commissioner Robert L. Burkhart has some concerns about Unger's recommendations. He said about the only way the county can install public sewer and water throughout the county before more growth occurs would be to impose a moratorium on residential development.

"I don't know what can be done," Burkhart said.

Burkhart said he has not given a lot of thought to how the county should correct the problem with contaminated well water. He said the county should move ahead "as quick as possible" to extend public water and sewer.

Burkhart said the contaminated water should not come as a surprise to some people.

About 10 years ago, county officials tried to determine whether septic systems were leaking by putting dye in commodes of homes. In some cases, the dye showed up in wells up to three miles away, Burkhart said.

Officials at the Berkeley County Health Department said they were flooded with phone calls from county residents after the water study was released about a week ago. The health department will test residential wells for $45.

There have been 58 requests for such tests since the study was released, a spokeswoman at the health department said Friday.

Health department sanitarians are expected to begin testing the wells this week, the spokeswoman said.

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