Wells in Md. remain tainted

Officials urge testing after effects of Isabel

`Know what you are drinking'

Problem most evident in Anne Arundel County

October 12, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Three weeks after Tropical Storm Isabel swept over the state's waterfront communities, thousands of Marylanders with private residential wells are still without clean drinking water.

Wells on waterfront property in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Eastern Shore counties were hit with flooding, saltwater corrosion and electrical malfunctions.

State and local officials are worried about contamination. In Anne Arundel, for example, test results are back for 494 wells, and 345 tested positive for bacteria, including 93 for traces of E. coli, which is present in animal and human waste.

Health officials are reminding storm-affected residents to test wells for potentially dangerous bacteria and, if necessary, disinfect wells with bleach to make sure that the water is safe for drinking and cooking.

The cost to sample well water runs $40 to $60. Some counties are providing free testing.

"What we are telling people is that if your well came in contact with flood water, assume that it is contaminated," said Jay Prager, chief of the on-site systems division of the Maryland Department of the Environment. "Just get it tested so you know what you are drinking."

Statewide, no cases of tainted-water illness have been reported.

The problem is most pronounced in Anne Arundel County, where an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 wells were inundated with flood water in the wake of the Sept. 18 storm.

"It's all septic down here," said Pasadena resident MaryJo Hartlove, 47, who worries that wastewater from residential septic tanks in her Poplar Ridge neighborhood might have seeped into her family's water supply.

She and her husband, John, haven't had a drink of water from their kitchen tap in three weeks. "Everyone should have their well cleaned and tested."

Statewide, there are about 350,000 residential wells. Residents in these communities rely on underground wells rather than on water treated at municipal plants. State officials estimate that thousands of wells might have been affected by Isabel, including flooding, saltwater corrosion and electrical malfunctions. Many of those wells have yet to be fixed, mainly because the people who use them have been busy dealing with insurance adjusters and trash hauling.

"It may be that people were so involved in so much cleanup that they didn't give a second thought to well water, and now they are moving back into their homes and turning on the tap and wondering why their water smells bad," said Prager.

How to disinfect

Local jurisdictions have responded to the need for well water information by posting disinfecting directions on county Web sites and including tips for well safety in storm victim information packets. Officials advise well owners to pour a gallon of bleach into the well, flush it through the plumbing system by turning on all the taps in the house and then let it sit for 24 hours.

"We had our fliers out within a couple of days of the storm," said David Carroll, who heads Baltimore County's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management. He said more than 100 property owners are dealing with wells that were possibly tainted by flood waters.

Baltimore County officials are recommending residents hire professionals to test and clean wells. "It is not hard to contaminate a well," said Carroll, who explained that even hands dirtied from outdoor work could foul well water. "I have a well, and I certainly wouldn't start treating it myself."

Could take months

In Anne Arundel County, which has 45,000 residential wells, many of them in waterfront areas such as Deale and Shady Side, public health officials are also offering free water sampling to residents whose wells came in direct contact with flood water. The county might seek federal emergency help to cover the cost.

"This is a major problem in terms of our county's environmental health recovery work," said Frances B. Phillips, the county's health officer.

Phillips said the task of cleaning and testing wells could take months to finish.

"The presence of bacteria is not something you can detect when you turn on the water, and we want to prevent any sort of health concerns," said Phillips, whose county, because of the high number of residential wells and waterfront geography, might have the most well work to be done. "In terms of man-hours, we are doing more than other counties."

Harford, Kent, Queen Anne's and St. Mary's counties are also offering free water sampling to storm victims.

Last week, Brian Chew, acting supervisor of Anne Arundel County's well construction and ground-water quality program, toured the quiet streets of Oyster Harbor near Annapolis in search of a house with a well that needed testing.

County officials are asking residents to bleach their wells first before contacting the health department to set up a test appointment. Chew said his staff has been taking about 50 to 100 well water samples a day recently. The samples are then tested by a state laboratory, and the results are returned to the county in five to seven days.

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