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Well proposal makes sense

October 17, 2003

One of the worst things elected officials can do is to ask citizens to serve on an advisory committee, then bypass them when a really tough issue arises.

So yes, the Washington County Commissioners should send a health department proposal for tougher treatment of well water to the Water Quality Advisory Commission. But the commissioners should be aware that this is one problem that can't be solved just by studying it.

The issue arose this week when Laurie Bucher, the local health department's director of environmental health, asked the commissioners to require more stringent disinfection procedures to rid local water wells of bacterial contamination.

The proposal involves new wells drilled in areas with so-called karst geology, which covers almost 90 percent of Washington County.

Essentially, these are areas where limestone forms underground channels like a buried honeycomb, allowing contamination from septic systems and surface contaminants to pollute well water.

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Is this a widespread problem? Earlier this month Bucher estimated that 40 percent of the county's wells are contaminated. Although not all residents will be sickened, she said very small children, the elderly or those with immune-system disorders may be at risk.

If something isn't done at the county level, the state may order the county to act, as it did in 1983 when an outbreak of hepatitis in the Martin's Crossroads area prompted the Maryland officials to order installation of a public water system.

That may happen in Boonsboro, where a series of contaminated wells were found earlier this year. Even if the state kicks in some cash, there'll be a local share and it won't be cheap.

If the commissioners can forestall future expenditures like that by requiring better treatment of well water, they should. Commissioner John Munson said each person should be able to decide whether he or she wants to take such a risk, but society requires citizens to protect themselves - and their children - with other devices like smoke detectors.

If there's an outbreak of hepatitis because one person didn't want to treat his water, every taxpayer will share the cost of dealing with it.

This proposal wouldn't help residents of existing homes, since it only deals with new construction. Taxpayers may get the bill for existing contamination soon, but let's prevent the next batch of problems by requiring the next generation of home buyers to protect themselves and their families.

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