Well water a concern in Eastern Panhandle

March 03, 2001

Well water a concern in Eastern Panhandle

By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - For more than 50 years, Robert and Sarah Steptoe have lived on a house just outside Martinsburg in a house that dates to 1739.

When they moved in 1949, they dug a well to use for water to replace the nearby springs. Originally dug at 60 feet, it became contaminated. They dug down to 120 feet and have had good water since.

"For all those years, that was a good decision,' Steptoe said last week. "But for the last 15 to 20 years, we've been concerned about the potential for more bad water."

That concern was realized last year, after they contacted the county Health Department and became part of a study that showed about 60 percent of 50 wells tested in the county were contaminated. One of the wells was theirs.


They didn't get sick and the water tastes good, said Sarah Steptoe. They put an ultraviolet filter on their well and that has taken care of the problem.

They don't have any problem drinking water out of the tap. But they believe the ultimate solution for them is to hook up to city water, which they hope to do soon.

Robert Steptoe said increased population has led to greater concern. When they moved in, they had only one neighbor. Now they have people all along Showers Lane and out into the nearby Mill Point subdivision.

"The problem is going to be exacerbated by all the new houses going in here," Steptoe said.

One of his new neighbors is William Alexander, president of the homeowners association at Mill Point. He had his water tested when he moved to Mill Point in 1998 and it was contaminated with coliform bacteria. He treated it with Clorox bleach and cleaned it up, although some residents are skittish about the potential problem.

"I'll drink water out of the tap, but I get bottled water for my wife," he said.

To gauge the depth of concern, "all you have to do is look at the number of people who are buying water at the grocery store," said Sarah Steptoe.

Alexander said many of his neighbors are doing just that, although only one was part of the test and came up with clean water.

Alexander will be in a unique position to fix the problem. He has been elected chairman of the Water Advisory Board that is helping oversee the merger of three water districts in the county.

It is expected the members of that board will make up the new board that runs the water district, providing water to more than 11,000 county residents and planning for future water line expansion.

"We will need to set priorities for putting water lines for those who have the highest percentage of contaminated wells," he said.

Many of his neighbors are close enough that they could hook up to future Martinsburg water lines. But they don't want to, preferring to remain in the county, he said

He offered what he said is probably a "controversial proposal" - requiring a mandatory hookup to water lines when one comes by their house, as is now required of sewer lines.

"That would be tough" to get such a law through the Legislature, said Steptoe, a former legislator.

Alexander said the mandatory hookup could be by referendum in each county, but acknowledged "many people in Berkeley County would be opposed."

Meanwhile, growth continues and the fear of more bad water increases.

"I'm concerned about it," said Steptoe. "I think it's going to get worse before it gets better."

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