The road to salty well water

Winter de-icing tactic on highway is the root of aquifers' problems

August 22, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Stephen and Wendy Bozel have discovered a flaw with their new home near Mays Chapel.

They can't drink the water.

"It's too salty," said Wendy Bozel, a fund-raiser for area schools who, with her husband and two children, lives on bottled water.

The Bozels say the well serving the house they moved into last month is contaminated by the same substance that experts say pollutes many wells throughout Maryland -- highway salt.

"It's a common problem, and we're hearing about more of it," said Bruce Gallup, a consultant who has been installing well water pumping systems since 1946.

State and private hydrogeologists say highway salt used to clear roads each winter soaks into the soil and breaks down chemically so that a key ingredient -- chloride -- seeps into underground aquifers that supply Maryland's 300,000 private wells.

State officials say that such salty water generally is not a health threat.

But the State Highway Administration is so familiar with the problem that it has its own well drilling equipment, which SHA uses to replace five to six private wells a year at $3,000 to $5,000 each, said David Buck, an SHA spokesman.

Buck said the cost must be balanced with the need to clear ice and snow off roads. SHA spends an average of $20 million annually for the 180,000 tons of salt spread on state highways, he said.

"There'd be more of an outcry if we didn't put salt down," Buck said.

State officials say that wells serve about one in six homes in Maryland. State-mandated tests for new residential wells -- such as those conducted by the Bozels before they purchased their home -- include checks for acidity levels, and for lead, copper and other toxins.

But chloride is not tested because it is not classified as a health hazard, they say.

Federal and state guidelines say that salt levels in drinking water should not exceed 250 milligrams of salt per liter. Water with higher salt levels may taste bad, but it poses a health risk only to people with kidney or heart problems who have to regulate their salt intake, officials say.

`Not a health issue'

"Chloride is basically salt, and people ingest salt all the time, so chloride in the water isn't really a health issue," said Harry Hanson, chief of hydrology for the Maryland Geological Survey.

Still, it tastes bad.

"It's not something you want to drink, or have your children drink," said Howard Goldman, a father of two who has salty well water at his Valleygate home.

Salt has corroded Goldman's plumbing fixtures, turned his shower tiles green, forced him to buy bottled water, and caused leaks that flooded his 15-room home, damaging ceilings, floors, walls and kitchen appliances.

"I wouldn't want to estimate what it's cost, but I know it's been thousands," said Goldman, an insurance consultant and estate planner.

Goldman said the salt levels are so high they have corroded his copper plumbing, mixing with the copper to form a noxious brew that has killed off goldfish and will sicken those who drink it.

Connecting to city service

Goldman said the salt seeping into Valleygate wells is from nearby Park Heights Avenue, a state artery. But he said the problem is so severe that a state-funded replacement well is not the answer.

Instead, he and his neighbors are asking Baltimore County officials to connect the 20 homes in Valleygate not on public water to the Baltimore City water system that serves city and county residents.

Goldman, who expects a County Council decision this fall, says the situation is a "health emergency," the county's standard for a public water connection.

"There'd be salt in any new well, no matter what. We need public water," Goldman said.

Water experts say that geological formations are such complex labyrinths that it is nearly impossible to predict whether a well will yield salty water. One homeowner may find salt-free water, while a neighbor will have brine.

"Groundwater hydrology has never been an exact science," said Bill Banks, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Service.

Studies show that chances of salt contamination increase dramatically when a well is near a heavily used roadway or a highway salt storage facility.

In such cases, it has cost state and local governments thousands to repair the damage.

Government support

SHA spent $25,000 to install a water treatment system last year at a Falls Road home after its well was contaminated by a nearby SHA salt storage facility. The treatment system was a necessity because a new well also would have been salty, Buck said.

Baltimore County also is spending $160,000 this year to drill a new well for the Manor Tavern, a 400-seat restaurant that has been surviving on bottled water since 1990 when highway salt from a nearby Baltimore County public works facility polluted its well.

"I'd agree that there's a problem with highway salt, but it's not an overwhelming problem," said Kevin Koepenick, the Baltimore County hydrogeologist who investigates well water complaints.

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