• Climate Change is Pushing Toxic Chemicals into Drinking Wells

    By: Erika Bolstad, Pew Charitable Trust April 28, 2022 Don Myron is probably best known as the guy who survived one of the deadliest fires in Oregon’s history by sheltering overnight in a river with a patio chair. So there was never any question that Myron would rebuild his home in Oregon’s Santiam Canyon after the house was destroyed in the Labor Day wildfires of 2020. The well Myron shared with nearby homeowners was no longer available, which meant one of his first tasks was to drill his own new source for drinking water. “It's hard to rebuild without water,” Myron said. “It's hard to do anything without water. It was a priority.” But with climate change confronting communities across the West, people who rely on wells are at particular risk as wildfires grow in intensity and frequency. Without vegetation, fire-scarred land becomes more susceptible to mudslides that can damage watersheds. Drought can increase the concentration of pathogens and other contaminants in well water. And fires can damage the well equipment and piping, leaching toxic chemicals into drinking water and forcing property owners to consider costly repairs, upgrades and filtering systems even as they rebuild their homes and businesses. Beyond the West, heavier rains and floods threaten well water quality, too. In Oregon, about a quarter of state residents rely on private wells for their water supply, according to the Oregon Health Authority. An estimated 2,000 households that rely on private wells were affected by the Labor Day fires of 2020, which, fueled by severe windstorms, rank among the largest and deadliest fires ever experienced in the state. In response, the state established a free voucher program that pays for people affected by the Labor Day fires to test their well water for some contaminants. Once Myron's well was drilled and operational, he used the voucher to have the water tested. It was “as clean as could be,” Myron said. “I was pleasantly surprised.” As States Prepare for Disasters, They Acknowledge Things Will Get Worse Such testing is increasingly common in Western states. After the 2018 Camp Fire nearly destroyed the town of Paradise in northern California, the Butte County Health Department warned residents that creeks and rivers flowing from fire-affected areas could contain elevated levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, a carcinogen, and lead, a neurotoxin. The fires damaged municipal systems and an estimated 2,438 private wells in what is, for now, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. The county also alerted property owners that contaminants could seep into the aquifers tapped by private wells. Butte County not only warned people to test for contaminants, but also advised them to drink pricey bottled water until they knew the full extent of the fire damage to their wells. If a fire burned or damaged the casing or plumbing around a well, officials warned, such breaches could cause bacterial growth, including E. coli, which can cause severe gastrointestinal distress. Heat damage from the fires also can compromise the plastic components of wells, potentially leaching dangerous chemicals into drinking water. Many of the fire-scarred communities of the West now are using guidelines developed in part by researcher Andrew Whelton, an engineering professor at Purdue University and director of the school’s Center for Plumbing Safety. Whelton studies water safety after wildfires, most recently after the Marshall Fire in suburban Boulder, Colorado. Health departments and state regulators needed a baseline understanding of what they should tell property owners, Whelton said, and in many cases were too overwhelmed by the logistics of disaster management to develop their own. “The people that were most affected by the contamination, the people that were receiving water that may or may not be contaminated, they may or may not have contaminated plumbing,” Whelton said. “They didn't have any single authority to go to, to get advice.” Few States Require Testing Most of the states that require that private wells be inspected or tested for integrity or water quality only do so when they're first drilled or when a property changes hands. It's generally up to an individual homeowner to pay to maintain a well and monitor its water quality. As a result, few wells are tested regularly. Polling shows that many Americans care deeply about water quality. But despite highly visible water crises, including high lead levels in Flint, Michigan, and scarcity within the Navajo Nation, the quality and safety of drinking water often are taken for granted. People turn on their taps and expect it to be fine. A Parched West Remains Divided on Desalinating Seawater In Oregon, only about 200 property owners with private wells have sought testing vouchers following the 2020 fires, said Curtis Cude, manager of the Oregon Health Authority’s domestic well safety program. Public health officials expected more people to apply for the vouchers, though they acknowledge that, because repairs can be expensive, wells may be a lower priority for some families. “One of the things that we were hearing, especially last year, is that people were still buried in ash and debris,” Cude said. “And some of those properties were so extensively damaged that they hadn't the opportunity to even think about getting their well on line.” Nationwide, an estimated 40 million people obtain their drinking water from a domestic well, according to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey. Many of those people are in rural communities not serviced by municipal water systems. In the West, homes with private wells are often in the places most vulnerable to increasingly hot or intense wildfires or the effects of drought. In states prone to wildfire, water quality remains an existential threat. The burden of sourcing uncontaminated water can be particularly stressful on people who've survived a wildfire. For example, Whelton points to a study of attitudes about water safety, which surveyed 233 households in Butte County, California, after the Camp Fire. More than half of respondents, 54%, self-reported that at least one member in their household had anxiety, stress or depression directly related to securing water, or in connection with water contamination issues. Most people who were surveyed said uncertainty about water and plumbing safety prompted them to alter water use in their homes. About 47% installed in-home water treatment technologies; 85% said they sought out alternate water sources. Wetter Storms Worsen Pollution Yet well contamination is a problem all over the country, including in places where climate change means more frequent and more intense rain events. In the Midwest, the intensity and frequency of rainstorms has increased since 1901, according to the most recent National Climate Assessment. It’s projected only to get worse. Heavy rains can overwhelm sewer or septic systems, transporting pathogens to the groundwater drawn up by wells. In 2018, hurricanes Florence and Michael inundated coastal Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, dumping more than 30 inches of rain in some places. The storms affected as many as 730,000 wells in the region, according to estimates from the National Groundwater Association. In North Carolina, the rains from Florence flooded more than 30 hog lagoons full of pig waste. The overflowing toxic muck from floodwaters can seep into the aquifer or make its way down into wells from flooding at the surface. Few Wells Tested for Contamination After Major Flooding From Hurricanes In the wake of the storms, North Carolina tested 1,000 private wells, said Wilson Mize, a regional environmental health specialist with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. After Hurricane Florence, 13% of the wells tested were positive for E. coli. Typically, with new wells, only about 3% test positive for it. The results gave health officials a good indication that floodwater was entering the wells, Mize said. The positive results for E. coli dropped to about 3% after wells were disinfected. The numbers provided state health officials a baseline for the effects of flood-related pollution on wells, which is a matter of critical public health concern—about 2.4 million people rely on wells for drinking water in the state. Since 2018, North Carolina has developed a program to get information out to people with wells who face heavy rainstorms. In areas with many wells, county officials place door hanger pamphlets with information about how to care for a well before and after a storm. Along with NASA and a researcher at Northeastern University, North Carolina is developing a well water surveillance and response system. It will create a mapping tool that, after flooding, will pinpoint the areas in the state with private wells. It’s aimed at helping the state determine where to emphasize sampling and disinfection after hurricanes, tropical storms and other heavy rains. Midwest Agriculture Can Threaten Wells In parts of the Midwest, nitrate pollution from fertilizer is especially troublesome after heavy rains, said Scott Laeser, the water program director for Clean Wisconsin, an environmental nonprofit. About a third of Wisconsin residents draw their drinking water from private wells, Laeser said. About 90% of nitrate contamination comes from manure and commercial fertilizer application. When heavy rainstorms dump water, they wash away the fertilizer on farm fields. Nitrates are especially mobile, and, once rainwater saturates the ground, the compounds quickly descend into the groundwater. Then, the chemicals reemerge in people’s well water. Nitrates are most notable for causing what’s known as blue baby syndrome, a condition that results in low oxygen levels in the blood. The threat of well pollution from manure is so severe that the state of Wisconsin operates an online risk advisory forecast to help farmers understand how weather conditions and soil temperatures might exacerbate runoff. It is updated three times a day by the National Weather Service. Laeser said the conservation work conducted by Clean Wisconsin to prevent runoff has been based on the assumptions of past climate patterns, not a present and future in which major rainstorms are increasingly frequent. The group’s conservation measures in the state weren't enough before, he said, but now, they look “increasingly inadequate in the face of the extreme weather challenges that we're facing.” “What we are having to do is kind of toss those out because they aren't relevant anymore,” Laeser said. “Places in western and northern Wisconsin are getting 100- and 500-year storms annually or biannually.” Agriculture has the potential to be a big part of climate solutions, Laeser said. Synthetic fertilizer production uses fossil fuels, in particular natural gas. Heavy fertilizer use contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing synthetic fertilizer use helps both the climate and water quality, Laeser said. So does finding ways for farms to be financially resilient and sustainable—including incentivizing growers to set aside wetlands—that don't “solely reward them based on as much cheap food as possible.” “There's a huge opportunity in that we can address so many water and climate challenges simultaneously,” Laeser said. “The connections between our water and climate challenges are becoming clearer by the day.” Read the article on Pew Charitable Trust


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  • Contaminated wells prompt NC county to seek state grant

    By: Ben Sessoms, Common Dreams April 19, 2022 The Gray’s Creek community in Cumberland County could receive federal funding to help address the GenX contamination of some residential wells. The county Board of Commissioners unanimously agreed Monday to apply for North Carolina’s drinking water reserve and wastewater reserve grant. The grant, which has two rounds of funding in the spring and fall, is financed through federal allocations to the state as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality will administer the funds and determine which applicants are awarded grant money. If accepted, the county could receive up to $15 million to fund construction of a new central water distribution system in the Gray’s Creek area in southern Cumberland County, according to county documents. The state’s grant is meant for at-risk water systems for which, among other purposes, the applicant’s intention is to connect residences in disadvantaged, underserved communities to a different water system. According to water sampling from DEQ, some residential wells in Gray’s Creek are contaminated with GenX, a chemical substance produced in the nearby Chemours plant. GenX is a trade name for one unregulated per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance, or PFAS, used in manufacturing nonstick coatings, among other purposes, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Last month, Cumberland County filed a lawsuit against Chemours and its predecessor company, DuPont, for allegedly releasing millions of pounds of PFAS into the air above its Fayetteville Works facility in the decades following 1970, as reported by Carolina Public Press. To determine how GenX affects the human body, more studies need to be done, according to DHHS. A small, limited study from the state agency suggests the substance, which DuPont started producing in 2009, may leave the human body quickly. Previously, the county had allocated $10.5 million for providing an alternative water system for Gray’s Creek. A pending contract is in place with the Fayetteville Public Works Commission, but the board has not yet finalized and approved that agreement. The county has until May 2 to apply for the state grant. If DEQ doesn’t accept Cumberland County’s application, the department will automatically consider the application for the next round of funding in the fall. The state could grant a low-interest loan to supplement funding if Cumberland County accepts, according to DEQ. If funding is still available after both application rounds, DEQ will give more to accepted applicants in $5 million increments until all the money is exhausted. DEQ will reward applicants in increments in order of priority, which the agency will determine. Read the article on Common Dreams


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  • REPORT: “Advancing Well User Protections Through Policy”

    Clean Water for NC is celebrating World Water Day this year with the release of our new report "Advancing Well User Protections Through Policy"! Read Our Report!   This year's theme for International World Water Day 2022 is Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible. Acknowledging the importance of groundwater and the services it provides to individuals across the globe is essential to developing protective well user protection policies, including policies for North Carolina's nearly 3 million private well users! With assistance from NC Well Water Working Group members, UNC's Superfund Research Program, NC Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) and NC Department of Health and Human Service (NC DHHS) officials, we outlined the case for two well user protection proposals: 1. Increase Funding, Scope & Accessibility of the Bernard Allen Fund 2. Require Well Testing Prior to Real Estate Transactions We hope you find this report insightful and inspiring. Our team looks forward to continuing to develop these policy recommendations before introducing them to some "legislative champions" in Raleigh! Did you know that North Carolina has the second largest population of private well users in the U.S.? Not only that, but there are no federal protections for these individuals - it is complete up to private well users to ensure the safety of their drinking water. What can you do to advocate for well user protections in your own community? Reach out to your state representatives and urge them to support policies that promote safe drinking water protections for North Carolina well users Visit our Well User Protection page to learn more about your county's well program. (Your county's Environmental Health Director is your local resource for everything "wells" - they are there to assist you!) Connect with Clean Water for NC staff about any questions or concerns you have about your private well


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  • Our Policy Wishlist for Private Well Users in 2022!

    Direct advocacy with communities on the ground for safe water and clean air is just one part of our Environmental Justice work! Policy development is a key aspect to ensure meaningful, sustainable change. We are excited to share our Well User Protection policy recommendations with our membership & NC legislators in 2022! Support Our Work Today Almost one third of North Carolinians rely on private wells for their drinking water - a source that is not protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. In partnership with UNC-Chapel Hill and the statewide Well Water Working Group, our team at CWFNC has developed two policy recommendations that we will be publishing in 2022 with the goal of raising support for these protections on the state level. Increased Funding for Private Well Tests Cost can be a major barrier for regular testing of private wells, particularly for low-income households. We believe this obstacle can be addressed by the Bernard Allen Fund, created in 2006 to improve the state’s response to private well water contamination and provide low-income households with a safe drinking water supply. Recommendations for the Fund include increasing funding available, providing a public application, increasing the household income limit or providing a sliding scale, and further addressing testing of naturally-occurring contaminants to better address threats to safe drinking water for well users. Requiring Well Testing Before a Real Estate Transaction A safe drinking water supply is essential to human health as well as protecting the value of residential property. If a real estate transfer is finalized before the property owner or renter discovers that the groundwater is contaminated, there may be limited options to remediate the issue. CWFNC believes that adequate testing is essential to due diligence prior to the purchase or rental of any property supplied by a private drinking water well, and is exploring policy initiatives in other states to help develop a similar policy recommendation here in NC. Thank you to all our new and recurring members for sustaining our Well User Protection policy work in 2021! We look forward to sharing more of this work and with you into the New Year! If you haven't given yet, consider donating to Clean Water for NC today and receive a tax deduction before the end of the year! Support Our Work Today


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  • Is your well water safe to drink? New resource from UNC-Chapel Hill, partners can help you decide

    Is your well water safe to drink? New resource from UNC-Chapel Hill, partners can help you decide Story by: Andrew George, Community Engagement Coordinator | UNC Institute for the Environment Press contact: Emily Williams, Director of Community and University Relations | UNC Institute for the Environment,  emilywilliams@unc.edu, (919) 962-0965 People who rely on private well water in North Carolina have a better chance of learning whether their well water is safe to drink thanks to an initiative of the UNC School of Law Well Water Pro Bono Project, the UNC Superfund Research Program (UNC SRP), the environmental non-profit Clean Water for North Carolina (CWFNC), NC Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS), Division of Public Health, Private Well and Health Program, and the NC Real Estate Commission. The team is engaged in a collaborative effort to provide North Carolinians with information they need to assess the safety of their well water. In October 2021, law students partnered with the NC Real Estate Commission to publish a brochure describing common well water contaminants, how to test for them, and resources for removing them when present. With UNC SRP and CWFNC, the team designed the brochure to inform realtors, property owners, and home buyers about the need for regular well testing as well as how to test well water and opportunities to reduce the cost of testing. An estimated 2.5 million people in NC rely on private wells for their drinking water. Although the state has the fifth largest population of well users in the country, drinking water from private wells is not regulated by state or federal agencies. As a result, most well water is not tested. Many contaminants cannot be tasted, smelled, or seen, making well testing the only way to know if contaminants are present and vital to protecting health or property. “North Carolina does not require real estate transactions to include a well water test, unless there is a known contaminant that the seller has a duty to disclose,” says Professor Maria Savasta-Kennedy, the author of North Carolina’s Environmental Law Practice Guide, who teaches environmental law and environmental justice at UNC School of Law. “Neither the federal Safe Drinking Water Act nor other federal or state regulation governs what is in your well water and how safe it is to drink.” Savasta-Kennedy supervises the Well Water Pro Bono Project, along with Cathy Cralle Jones, senior litigator with the Law Offices of F. Bryan Brice Jr. in Raleigh, who first brought the project to the law school. “The North Carolina Real Estate Commission is thrilled to be involved in bringing these much-needed resources to consumers,” said Charlie Moody, assistant director for the Regulatory Affairs Division of the NC Real Estate Commission. “Additionally, these materials will assist real estate brokers in educating their clients about the importance of well water testing.” When a new well is constructed in North Carolina, the local health department is required to conduct an initial test for a limited number of contaminants (N.C. Gen. Stat. 87-97), but ongoing testing is not required. Additionally, testing is not required for any wells installed prior to 2008. Radon, a prevalent, naturally occurring contaminant in the state, and emerging contaminants such as PFAS and GenX are not included on the list of contaminants that must be tested. “This effort to increase well water testing during real estate transactions complements our ongoing work to support private well users with cutting edge science and potential solutions when contamination is found,” said Rebecca Fry, director of the UNC SRP. “With our community partners, we will continue to incorporate the best science into policy dialogues, so private well users can feel confident making decisions about their drinking water to protect their families and communities.” The next steps include sharing this information broadly, and CWFNC is positioned to take on some of that work. According to Rachel Velez, CWFNC’s Water Justice program director, “absent state and federal regulations for private wells, we are excited to explore creative solutions for protecting well users. We look forward to engaging our statewide membership to better understand the obstacles rural and low-income private well users face when trying to provide a safe drinking water source for their households.” If you are a private well user and would like more information about this effort and research projects to improve drinking water in NC, please visit the UNC Superfund Research Project web page: https://sph.unc.edu/superfund-pages/cec/.  For more information about Well Water Pro Bono Project at UNC School of Law, please visit https://law.unc.edu/news/2021/10/well-water-testing-pro-bono-project/.


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  • Private Well User? Take the Survey to Help Us Help YOU!

    Clean Water for NC is excited to get back on the ground and work to strengthen protections for our state’s 3 million+ well users To help us better understand community needs and concerns, we are inviting all individuals who rely on a private well for their drinking water source to participate in the survey below! The anonymous survey is divided into 2 sections: 1. Your well testing history 2. Potential barriers to testing your well TAKE THE WELL USER SURVEY! **All responses are anonymous and will only be shared with CWFNC staff to better inform their Well User Protection campaign…


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  • Testing Before Real Estate Transfers to Protect Private Well Users!

    It is estimated that over 3 million North Carolinians use private wells for their drinking water, and NC has the fourth highest number of private well users in the country. While there is no statewide database tracking the annual number of real estate transfers in NC, it would not be a stretch to state that tens of thousands of properties are bought or leased annually without the buyer or lessee having any information on the quality of their property’s private well. Because North Carolina law only mandates the testing of private wells that were drilled after…


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  • Wake County notifying thousands about possibly unsafe drinking water in private wells

    By: Anna Johnson, Raleigh News & Observer June 24, 2019 Wake County is notifying thousands of households on private wells that their drinking water may have unhealthy levels of radiological chemicals like uranium and radon. An estimated one in five private wells in eastern Wake County may exceed safe drinking-water standards for some chemicals, officials said at a Monday news conference. They plan to notify 19,000 property owners by mail starting this week. People don’t need to panic, said Evan Kane, the county’s groundwater protection…


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