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Lancaster County has around 38,000 private wells. The state regulates none of them. [video]

When Jerry Solomon bought his house in West Lampeter Township seven years ago, one of the first things he did was look into connecting to the nearby public water system.

That idea was quickly put to rest when he learned the total cost to connect his home to the public system would be close to $40,000. 

“It made no sense to do it since I had a functioning, existing well,” the 74-year-old Solomon said in a recent phone interview. “(Besides) I like being in charge of my own cost, and water can be an expensive commodity.”

Solomon never tested his water, but shortly after buying the home he did have an ultraviolet light filtration system and an ion-exchange resin filter tank installed as precautions against possible contaminants.

His decision to stick with his well comes with risks, one of which he discovered when he recently agreed to allow LNP to collect water samples from his well and have them tested by the Penn State Extension.

The samples revealed nitrate levels of 25.8 parts-per-million (ppm), more than twice the 10 ppm level recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for public water systems.

Although nitrates occur naturally in ground and surface water at low concentrations, their presence in drinking water above the EPA recommendation can cause health problems, said Jennifer Fetter, Penn State Extension well water educator.

“There was always that lurking unknown out there and there was always the thought to get it tested,” Solomon said. However, he said, not knowing how and where to send a water sample prevented him from following through.

Lancaster County is home to approximately 38,000 of the state’s nearly 1 million private wells, according to the Pennsylvania Geological Survey.

Well Drilling

A crew from Myers Bros. Drilling Contractors Inc. drills a well at a home on Conestoga Blvd. in Conestoga Twp. Monday, August 26, 2019.

Private water wells are often thought of as less expensive than being on a public water system because homeowners do not receive regular bills for each gallon of water they use. That’s because the EPA does not regulate how private water supplies are constructed and it doesn’t mandate monitoring or testing of the water that comes from these sources.

Most states have established their own standards for private water wells, according to Fetter, who added most states also have started regulating the construction of new water wells.

The only states without regulations are Alaska and Pennsylvania, she said.

In the past few years, Alaska has established guidance on proper new private water well drilling, and although the construction standards are not enforced by the state, “it’s still significantly more structured than anything from the state government in Pennsylvania,” Fetter said.

“I’m pretty positive, at this point, that we’re the only state without any well construction standards at all,” she said.

Proper well construction can keep contaminants from getting into the water, but testing the water is necessary to know of existing contamination.

“Generally speaking, all the things that can hurt you are secretly invading your home,” Fetter said. “You have to test (the water). There’s no other way to know.”


‘I’m a little surprised at the coliform’

Larry Fowler said he had a nagging thought to test his water in recent years.

When Fowler’s family moved into their Manheim Township home 30 years ago, they had the well water tested. At that time, their water had nitrate levels above the EPA recommended limit for public water systems.

The family started buying water to drink and cook with immediately, but the family continued to use the well water to make iced tea, ice cubes and to give to their cat. They never tested their water again.

Like Solomon, Fowler, 73, agreed to let LNP collect water samples from his well. And like Solomon, his water tested for high levels of nitrates — 18.7 ppm. It also revealed the presence of total coliform bacteria, which indicates that there may be a pathway for other, more harmful bacteria.

“I was expecting the nitrates to be high, maybe not this high, but I was expecting it to be a little bit higher,” said Fowler while reading his results at his home. “I am a little surprised at the coliform and I might just take some other tests to find out about that, because it has the potential to being injurious to my health.”

Fowler’s and Solomon’s tests align with two of the the most common contaminants found in Lancaster County — nitrates and bacteria — Fetter said.

Nitrates are a major concern in the county because many wells are in agricultural areas. Nitrates are present in fertilizers and manure and can seep into groundwater and flow to aquifers that feed into private wells.

High nitrate levels can cause what is commonly called “blue baby syndrome,” said Dr. Alan Peterson, a southern Lancaster County physician.

The condition occurs when nitrates block the body’s ability to carry enough oxygen to cells throughout the body, resulting in the person appearing blue. The toxicity is especially dangerous for infants and pregnant or breast-feeding women.

Blue-baby syndrome is not a reportable condition in Pennsylvania and there is no data on occurrences statewide, said a Department of Health spokesperson.

Nitrates and bacteria are not naturally present in groundwater, so their presence indicates the well is compromised, either by contaminants seeping through the ground into the aquifer below or the well not being properly sealed and acting as a highway for contaminants to get straight into the water.

Unlike bacteria, nitrates cannot be boiled out of water, Fetter said. When water is boiled some of it will evaporate, but the nitrates become more concentrated.

As for bacteria, total coliform bacteria is the most prevalent throughout the state — 40% of tests in the Penn State Extension database were positive for coliform, she said.

The EPA standards consider any presence of bacteria as a fail.

On its own, total coliform bacteria is not an immediate health concern, but it means there is a pathway for harmful fecal bacteria such as E. coli.

Of the 18 private wells that LNP collected samples from, one tested positive for both total coliform and E. coli. Six others tested positive for total coliform. Eight total tested positive for elevated numbers for nitrates.

Two other common contaminants found in county water are arsenic and lead, Fetter said.

Arsenic comes from natural geological formations, and lead contamination is typically caused by lead pipes used in a home’s plumbing. Acidity in the water can cause pipes to corrode and contaminate the water.

Possible contaminants are not limited, so to know what to test for, it’s important to learn the history of the property, Peterson said.

It can be complicated to figure out what any property was previously used for and narrow down the tests based on that information, he said.


Snakes in the well

Ally Ulsh inherited her Dauphin County childhood home in 2017. It’s on the same plot of land as her grandparents’ property.

This summer, out of curiosity, Ulsh and her boyfriend started searching for the well that serves her property. Both are Penn State University students who study water-related issues.

When they found the well, her boyfriend kicked off its unsecured cover and they both peered in. That’s when they saw a snake coiled at the top of the well, which is about 8 inches wide, and what they thought was another snake coiled further down the well, Ulsh, 21, said.

Ulsh immediately called a water maintenance company and had it remove the snakes and test the well. The tests came back positive for bacteria and E. coli, and Ulsh believes the snakes were at least partly responsible for the presence of the bacteria.

However, she wasn’t completely surprised to learn that her well was contaminated.

Ulsh recalled that when she was a toddler, she was treated at the hospital after drinking water from her grandparents’ home because their well had nitrate and E. coli contamination.

They had their water treated and her illness went away.

But her parents, who Ulsh thinks may have shared the same aquifer, never had their well tested. And her family didn’t think about it again.

Snake in the well 2

A private water well at the home of Allyson Ulsh, in Dauphin County, had at least two snakes in the well head when she found it earlier this summer.


Taking action

Most people only test their water when they have an aesthetic issue — like discoloration, odor or taste, said Jason Myers, water treatment manager in sales at Myers Bros. Wells Inc. in East Hempfield Township.

“If people can shower and wash their dishes, they aren’t concerned,” he said.

Myers said he would like to see things like elevated well heads and good quality well caps that fully seal with bolts be required statewide.

Elevated well heads with a fully sealing caps are recommended to make sure that small insects and animals, water runoff and other external contaminants do not get into the well and eventually contaminate the aquifer.

Often, homeowners will choose to have their well heads below ground so they don’t have to mow around it or pick a well cap that’s not secure to save some money, Myers said.

Fowler decided to have his well head level with the ground for exactly that reason. Even knowing about his current water contamination, he doesn’t believe that raising his well head will have much of an impact.

Both Solomon and Fowler said they will consider having filtration systems installed or, in Solomon’s, case updated to treat their water.

“I would say that it’s 90% certain that within a week I will contact somebody,” Solomon said.

However, neither are very concerned — they both said they’ve been drinking the water so far and they’re probably fine.

For Ulsh, the ability to say affirmatively that the water in her home is clean is worth the close to $2,000 that installing an ultraviolet filtration system cost her, she said.

“It was overwhelming at first, because you start thinking ‘Oh my God, there are so many things that I don’t know how to take care of a house,’” she said. “It almost feels like you failed.”