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Legislation aggravated well problem in Berkeley County

March 03, 2001

Legislation aggravated well problem in Berkeley County



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A Berkeley County lawmaker and environmental officials disagree over whether a state law enacted two years ago may be contributing to well water contamination in the county.

A report in December found 60 percent of wells tested in the county are contaminated with bacteria.

A bill co-sponsored by Del. Larry Faircloth, R- Berkeley County, eased requirements for testing the ground before installing residential septic systems. Faircloth said the change addressed a problem that left the county open to possible litigation.

The bill also provided for wider usage of residential sewage treatment systems called "home aeration units."

Twila Carr, chief of environmental health at the Berkeley County Health Department, and Dave Watkins, groundwater program manager for the state Division of Environmental Protection, say the less-restrictive regulations could be exposing underground water supplies to potential contamination by septic systems.

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The December report, by the Potomac Headwaters Resource Conservation and Development Council, said the contamination could be caused by leakage from failing residential septic systems.

One issue of concern is septic tanks that are installed for homes built in what is called karst terrain, where there are cavernous underground areas through which well water flows.

Before the less restrictive regulations were passed, the county health department required developers to dig either up to four 6-foot holes or a trench 6 feet deep by 20 feet long to check for rock ledges that could provide a direct route to underground water supplies, Carr said.

Under the bill Faircloth co-sponsored with four other legislators, developers are now required to dig only one 6-foot hole, Watkins said.

Calling the law a "step backwards for public health," Carr said it is ineffective. If only one test hole is required, it could be dug between two rock ledges and fail to detect their presence, she said.

Faircloth dismissed Carr's concerns.

"If she's whining, that's a problem she needs to talk to us about," he said.

Faircloth said he introduced the legislation partly in response to legal concerns.

When a subdivision was planned, the developer would have soil tests performed to determine if septic tanks could be safely used on the property being developed, Faircloth said. If the tests showed no problems, the West Virginia Health Department would issue "blanket approval" for the development and lots would be sold.

Lot owners were then required to get a permit from the Berkeley County Health Department to install a septic tank, which involved additional testing. If the lots did not pass health department testing, owners were told they could not build, Faircloth said.

He said "hundreds" of angry property owners were referred to him.

Faircloth said his bill saved the county health department "a lot of embarrassment and a lot of lawsuits.

"There was a potential of a class-action suit all over the state," said Faircloth, who is a real estate broker and home builder.

Faircloth's bill also allowed for greater use of home aeration units that treat residential sewage and discharge the treated water underground.

Before House Bill 2826 became law, the units could only be used for homes that had failing septic systems. Under the law, the units can now be used on any lots, including those that do not meet standards for septic tanks systems.

Watkins said the units have a high failure rate that can lead to groundwater contamination.

When the units are sold, there is typically a two-year maintenance contract to cover any problems, Watkins said, but many are not maintained after two years.

"They are continually breaking down in one fashion or another," Watkins said.

A study on home aeration units conducted by West Virginia University in 1998 revealed that 92 percent of the systems being used in the state are discharging waste water of "unacceptable quality."

Watkins could not say how many home aeration units are in use in the county.

"I don't have the exact number, but they are in the thousands," he said.

Faircloth said he was not aware of problems with the units.

While Watkins and Carr believe the less restrictive regulations have compounded the problem of contaminated well water, Watkins said there are several possible causes of the contamination. He said it could be coming from farm animals, septic systems or birds, or it could be caused by contamination in another state.

"You can't point your finger at any one cause until the research is done," Watkins said.

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