Lancaster County has about 38,000 private water wells. Pennsylvania regulates none of them. Those are basically the headlines on Hurubie Meko’s in-depth article published on the front page of the Sept. 22 Sunday LNP. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “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,” Meko reported. So, with no federal oversight, all but two states have established their own standards for private water wells. The outliers are Pennsylvania and Alaska.
Well water is a way of life for tens of thousands of people in Lancaster County. As Meko explains, 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.” Additionally, many private well owners strongly cherish their independence and self-reliance, and they don’t want the government in that aspect of their lives.
But, as LNP’s reporting showed, private well water can contain contaminants that can cause serious health problems. LNP, with a grant from the Steinman Foundation, had water samples from 18 Lancaster County private wells tested at an accredited lab (with the owners’ permission). Among the concerns those tests revealed:
— Eight of the 18 wells tested above the EPA’s maximum allowed contamination levels for nitrates.
— Seven of the 18 wells tested positive for the presence of total coliform bacteria.
— Two of the 18 wells tested below the 6.5 to 8.5 range of pH levels for the water, meaning the water in those homes is acidic.
These are real worries.
“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,” Meko reported.
Nitrates and bacteria — plus other potential contaminants such as lead and arsenic — are a significant concern for anyone who uses private well water.
“I test well water every day and the results would shock most people,” said local reader Jason Myers, commenting on Facebook. “Wells do need regulations as a measure to protect our health.”
But what should we do for oversight? That is a complex question, because there tends to be resistance to the idea of new regulations. On the other hand, our state law provides no regulation at all for these wells.
In recent years, even Alaska has established guidance for drilling new private wells and, although the construction standards are not enforced by that state, “it’s still significantly more structured than anything from the state government in Pennsylvania,” said Jennifer Fetter, Penn State Extension well water educator.
“I’m pretty positive, at this point, that we’re the only state without any well construction standards at all,” Fetter added.
Perhaps worse, private well owners in Lancaster County who desire to test their water don’t always have an easy time doing so.
“One homeowner from Manor Township ... said she reached out to several state and local agencies for resources on how to have her water tested,” Meko reported. “Finding sparse information and eventually getting frustrated, she gave up.”
That’s not acceptable.
For the record, two good resources for private well owners are the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Penn State Extension, which has its Lancaster County office at 1383 Arcadia Road in Manheim Township. Information on contacting those agencies can be found in LNP’s coverage at bit.ly/PrivateWells.
Meanwhile, area residents who are resistant to governmental oversight of private water wells made their views loud and clear in online responses to Meko’s article:
— “I paid to install my well. I pay to maintain my well. I don’t need any help, thanks.”
— “Why not move in the other direction and start removing regulations on more things instead?”
— “Government wanting their hand in your business. We are good without them!”
— “The state can keep their nose out of my well.”
We understand where those views are coming from. Independence and privacy are important. In Pennsylvania especially, we understand the opposition to even bigger government.
Still, our greater concern is for the health and safety of our residents who use private wells. Somehow we need a better — and safer — way forward for Lancaster County.
Can we do it on our own? Without federal or state intervention? We say yes. We can look to our neighbor to the east for ideas and inspiration.
In Chester County, which has even more private wells than Lancaster County, officials established guidelines in 1981 to “promote overall public health and safety by protecting groundwater quality,” said Jeanne Casner, director of the Chester County Health Department.
Chester County’s rules “established minimum standards for where and how private and public groundwater systems are built,” Meko reported, adding that Chester County also requires permits for the construction of new wells. Regulations cover the distance a well must be from potential pollutants and the use of proper well casings, and they require the placement of well heads several inches above the ground. Municipalities within Chester County can have their own regulations, but county-level standards supersede them.
We believe that is reasonable and smart. So do some of our readers, who supported the idea of county-level oversight.
We ask Lancaster County officials to consider steps toward ensuring the health and safety of all residents via some oversight of our private water wells. Chester County’s model — starting with the creation of standards for drilling new wells — makes sense for Lancaster, too.