Monday, December 9, 2019

Some States Require the Testing of Private Wells

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report “Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2015,” which is the latest data available from the USGS, approximately 42.5 million people (more than 13 % of the U.S. population) obtain their drinking water from private wells. This is an estimate. private well water use is rarely reported.

The quality and safety of water from private wells are not regulated by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act or, in most cases, by state laws. Instead, individual homeowners are responsible for maintaining their domestic well systems and for monitoring water quality. However, there are three states and several health districts within the 10 “home-rule” states have some sort of regulation requiring private well testing. 

Public health and environmental experts seem to agree that engaging private well owners about testing is the first step and key to building a relationship with well owners. Outreach and education though difficult are necessary for building trust within a community and to support effective well testing initiatives. Barriers to engagement identified included the costs of testing and treatment, general mistrust of government, and perceptions that well water is “natural” and therefore believed to be healthy. 

However, testing has found that groundwater is becoming impacted by the actions of man. The Safe Drinking Water Act (Public Law 93-523) that empowered the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national health-based, enforceable standards for natural or man-made contaminants in drinking water excludes private wells serving fewer than 25 people. In absence of federal standards it is up to the private water well owners themselves to request and pay for the tests and to implement any necessary remediation.

New Jersey, Rhode Island and Oregon have enacted legislation that requires private well testing at the point of a real estate transaction. New Jersey was he first state to require well testing and requires the most analysis. Rhode Island regulations also require the broad testing of wells at the time of a sale, but also suggest annual testing with different substances testing suggested at different frequency. In “home-rule” states many health districts can have unique requirements that might be of concern in the local area. Other states like Virginia and Pennsylvania utilize water clinics to facilitate the testing and understanding of test results.   

The New Jersey Private Well Testing Act (PWTA) is the oldest of the laws. Its regulations became effective in September 2002. The PWTA is a consumer information law that requires sellers (or buyers) of property with a potable private well in New Jersey to test the untreated groundwater for a variety of water quality parameters, including up to 32 human health concern, and to review the test results prior to closing of title. Landlords are also required to test their well water once every five years and to provide each tenant with a copy of the test results.

Under the PWTA all wells must be tested for: total coliform bacteria, iron, manganese, pH, all volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with established Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), nitrate, arsenic, 48-hour rapid gross alpha particle activity, lead, 1,2,3-trichloropropane, ethylene dibromide, and 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane If total coliform bacteria are detected, a test must also be conducted for E. coli. Private wells located in certain counties will also have to test for uranium and mercury. However, the law only requires that both the buyer and seller have received and reviewed a copy of the water test results, and have signed a paper certifying that they have received and reviewed a copy of the results before closing.

There is no requirement that the water be “safe.” The law does not prohibit the sale of property if the water fails one or more drinking water standards. The law mainly ensures that all parties to the real estate transaction know the facts about the well water so that they can make well-informed decisions. The test data is also submitted electronically by the test laboratories to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for retention, notifying health department of water quality issues, and statewide analysis of groundwater quality. To date New Jersey has collected more than 220,000 data points and expanded the analysis.

In Oregon well owners are not required by law to test their wells unless you plan to sell the property (ORS 448.271). When a purchase offer is accepted, the seller must have the well tested for arsenic, nitrates and total coliform bacteria. This is a very limited look at water quality.

The Rhode Island Department of Health now requires water testing on any Real Estate Transaction and on any newly drilled well. It is required that the well be tested for: total coliform, alkalinity, hardness, chloride, fluoride, iron, lead, manganese, nitrate/nitrite, pH, specific conductance, sulfate, TDS, turbidity, VOC (w/MTBE).

Annual testing of well water is recommended by the  Rhode Island Department of Health. Substances you should test for each year, including Nitrate, Nitrite, Color, Turbidity, and Coliform Bacteria. In addition, the Department of Health recommends that every 3-5 years a well be tested for: fluoride, iron, lead, manganese, sulfate, pH, alkalinity, Total Dissolved Solids, hardness, and specific conductance. Then every 5-10 years a well should also be tested for VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and MtBE.

In a 2009 study from the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assessed the water-quality for about 2,100 domestic wells. The sampled wells are were located in 48 states and up to 219 properties and contaminants, including pH, nutrients, trace elements, radon, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), were measured. The large number of contaminants assessed and the broad geographic coverage of the study provided the beginning of an understanding of the quality of water from the major aquifers tapped by domestic supply wells in the United States.

The USGS found that 23% of private wells had at least one contaminant present at concentrations exceeding federal drinking water standards or other health-based levels of concern ,and numerous emerging contaminants that lacked health-based standards were detected in groundwater nation-wide (DeSimone, L.A., Hamilton, P.A., Gilliom, R.J., 2009, Quality of water from domestic wells in principal aquifers of the United States, 1991–2004—Overview of major findings: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1332, 48 p.) 

Not only should you test the raw well water before purchasing a home with a well, it is also important to verify that any treatment is doing its job correctly and that water remains safe each year. It remains to be seen if mandated testing programs are the way to achieve safer private well drinking water.

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