NC wells con­tam­i­na­tion has spiked af­ter floods

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Local - BY JOHN MU­RAWSKI jmu­[email protected]­sob­

Don’t drink the well water. That might well be the warn­ing no­tice left by Hur­ri­cane Florence.

Con­tam­i­na­tion of pri­vate water wells in North Carolina has spiked in the af­ter­math of flood wa­ters that spread raw sewage, farm an­i­mal waste and the over­flow from sep­tic sys­tems across parts of the state, ac­cord­ing to data from N.C. De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices.

Be­cause pri­vate wells are largely un­reg­u­lated in North Carolina, there is no com­pre­hen­sive data avail­able on the lev­els of con­tam­i­na­tion caused by hur­ri­cane flood­ing. But scat­tered in­for­ma­tion from free test­ing pro­vided by the de­part­ment sug­gests that thou­sands of homeowners could be un­wit­tingly us­ing con­tam­i­nated water for drink­ing, cook­ing and bathing.

The Na­tional Ground Water As­so­ci­a­tion es­ti­mates that 332,798 pri­vate wells in North Carolina were ex­posed to heavy rains or are lo­cated in coun­ties de­clared dis­as­ter ar­eas from the hur­ri­cane. About 2.4 mil­lion peo­ple in the state get their drink­ing water from wells in their yards, the fifth-high­est to­tal in the na­tion, ac­cord­ing a 2018 re­port by the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey.

Sev­eral hun­dred sam­ples an­a­lyzed in re­cent weeks by the State Lab­o­ra­tory of Pub­lic Health show a marked in­crease in E. coli, the tell­tale bac­te­ria that in­di­cates the pres­ence of fe­cal mat­ter found in raw sewage and in an­i­mal waste.

Those sam­ples come from the free water anal­y­sis be­ing of­fered by the state to own­ers of pri­vate wells in 23 coun­ties, to en­cour­age get­ting wells tested. So far pri­vate well own­ers have sub­mit­ted 646 water sam­ples for test­ing, out of 2,165 sam­ple free water test­ing kits dis­trib­uted to county health de­part­ments.

The free test­ing is still be­ing of­fered in the 23 coun­ties, with an end date yet to be de­ter­mined. These coun­ties are in the south­east­ern sec­tion of the state that was soaked by Florence, and in­clude sev­eral in or near the Tri­an­gle: John­ston, Chatham, Har­nett and Lee.

The re­sults as of Oct. 19 show that 14.9 per­cent of the well water tested pos­i­tive for E. coli bac­te­ria and to­tal fe­cal co­l­iform bac­te­ria. That com­pares to just 2 per­cent of pri­vate wells test­ing pos­i­tive for those same pathogens be­tween Jan­uary and Septem­ber, be­fore Hur­ri­cane Florence struck the state. The pres­ence of these bac­te­ria in­di­cates that the water is con­tam­i­nated with pathogens that can cause di­ar­rhea, cramps, nau­sea and vom­it­ing.

At least one county is see­ing a cor­re­spond­ing in­crease in stom­ach ill­ness, but the causes can’t be pin­pointed ex­clu­sively to pri­vate wells. Colum­bus County av­er­ages three gas­tro-in­testi­nal re­ports a month, but has re­ceived 11 re­ports since Hur­ri­cane Florence. The county has tested 57 water sam­ples and 13 have come back pos­i­tive for to­tal co­l­iform, while five were pos­i­tive for to­tal co­l­iform and fe­cal mat­ter, said county health di­rec­tor Kim Smith.

“I can tell you that we have had an in­crease in our re­ported cases of gas­tro ill­nessess,” Smith said by email. “Please keep in mind that gas­tro ill­nesses can be due to many causes not just con­tam­i­nated water.”

In ad­di­tion to the free test­ing, other free or dis­counted ser­vices are be­ing of­fered to pri­vate well own­ers. The N.C. Ground Water As­so­ci­a­tion is pro­vid­ing $100 to off­set the cost of chlo­ri­nat­ing and de­con­tam­i­nat­ing a pri­vate well. So far there have been no tak­ers, a source of frus­tra­tion to the as­so­ci­a­tion, said Chauncey Leg- gett, the group’s pres­i­dent and a well driller in Tar­boro.

The de­con­tam­i­na­tion cost would typ­i­cally run be­tween $80 and $200, de­pend­ing on the type of well and other fac­tors, said Chuck Job, reg­u­la­tory af­fairs man­ager at the Na­tional Ground Water As­so­ci­a­tion. The process in­volves pour­ing bleach into the well, wait­ing up to 24 hours and retest­ing for bac­te­ria about a week af­ter the dis­in­fec­tion, ac­cord­ing to an in­struc­tional man­ual from the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency.

And a group of sci­en­tists work­ing with N.C. State Ex­ten­sion, UNC-Chapel Hill and Vir­ginia Tech Uni­ver­sity took about 50 water sam­ples last week for free lab anal­y­sis in New Hanover and Brunswick coun­ties. The group plans to ex­pand to other coun­ties in the com­ing weeks, said Michael Burchell, a pro­fes­sor of bi­o­log­i­cal and agri­cul­tural en­gi­neer­ing at N.C. State Uni­ver­sity.

“It does mat­ter that there’s dou­ble-digit con­tam­i­na­tion of bac­te­ria,” Burchell said. “Those own­ers need to ad­dress that.”

The po­ten­tial sources of the con­tam­i­na­tion in­clude hog waste la­goons, which store urine and fe­ces; ac­cord­ing to state data, six of the la­goons were struc­turally dam­aged dur­ing the flood­ing and 33 over­flowed. Con­tam­i­na­tion also can be traced to waste water treat­ment plants that over­flowed and dis­charged mil­lions of gal­lons of raw sewage into flooded rivers. Ad­di­tion­ally, thou­sands of pri­vate sep­tic sys­tems could have dis­gorged hu­man waste when they were sub­merged.

Bac­te­ria can en­ter a pri­vate well through a crack or a gap, not un­com­mon in decades-old wells. Or the bac­te­ria can seep into ground­wa­ter when the ground is sat­u­rated from heavy rain, and flow into the well.

Once it worms its way in­side a well, E. coli can repli­cate and sur­vive for more than a month, de­pend­ing on the con­di­tions, said Jacqueline Mac­Don­ald Gib­son, a pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal sciences and en­gi­neer­ing at UNC.

Not ev­ery­one gets sick from in­gest­ing the pathogens and mi­cro­scopic bits of fe­cal mat­ter. Some may feel un­der the weather for rea­sons un­known to them.

Oth­ers who get sick can have a severe re­ac­tion, re­quir­ing hos­pi­tal­iza­tion.

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