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County seeking guidance on wells

October 15, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

After hearing a request by a health official Tuesday to improve the quality of well water in Washington County, the County Commissioners sent the proposal to a local advisory board for recommendations.

Laurie Bucher, director of environmental health for the Washington County Health Department, asked the commissioners for more stringent disinfection and treatment procedures to help rid wells of bacterial contamination and keep the drinking water safe for residents.

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell made the suggestion that the Washington County Water Quality Advisory Commission work with the health department to come up with recommendations on the proposal.

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The commissioners voted 4-0 on Wivell's suggestion. Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook was not at the meeting.

Bucher told The Herald-Mail last week that about 40 percent of the wells in the county are contaminated with various types of bacteria.

The Health Department, under pressure from the state, wants the county to require all new wells drilled in areas with karst terrain to be treated with water softener, filtration systems and ultraviolet lighting to help rid the water of bacteria, Bucher said.

The treatment systems would cost homeowners $2,000 to $3,500, Bucher said.

Based on studies from the U.S. Geological Survey, 89 percent of Washington County is made up of karst terrain, which contains soluble carbonate rock such as limestone.

Karst landscapes are prone to sinkholes, depressions and cracks, health officials said.

Contaminated surface water may run into those cracks and seep into well water, Bucher said.

Many people who depend on wells for drinking water already use ultraviolet light systems to kill pathogens, but it's not enough to get rid of all of them, she said.

While healthy adults may not get sick from drinking water from contaminated wells, bacteria present in some wells may cause children, seniors or those with compromised immune systems to become seriously ill with diseases such as giardia and cryptosporidium.

Those diseases may cause severe flu-like symptoms, Bucher has said.

Commissioner John C. Munson said residents shouldn't be forced to comply with the new rules if they're adopted. Instead, they should have the right to choose whether they want to install that level of well treatment, he said.

"It's their life. It's their body they're putting that water in," Munson said. "I think there's too much restrictions on people."

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said it might not be that easy if the state also wants the county to require the treatment.

"Unfortunately, if (the Maryland Department of the Environment) comes down with an order, John, we're not going to have that luxury," Wivell said.

Wivell suggested that residents be given the option to prove through testing that their new wells would not be contaminated before installing the recommended treatment system.

If the tests reveal no contamination, residents would not have to follow the proposed regulation, he said.

Bucher and Debi Turpin, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Washington County, said testing is a possibility, but it might delay the home-building process.

They said residents would have to wait until the appropriate weather conditions existed before the wells could be tested.

Whatever the commissioners decide, Bucher said the quality of well water in Washington County must be improved.

"It's our mission to provide safe drinking water to the citizens," Bucher said. "Right now, we feel that we're not doing that."

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