HAZARD — Some private water wells in Kentucky are about to be a part of an Environmental Protection Agency study to determine the bacterial contents of the state’s underground drinking water.
This study is being conducted in conjunction with the Kentucky Division of Water, and officials are currently looking for volunteers from across the state to allow testing at their private wells. They are hoping to find some baseline data to start collecting information on the health of well water across the state.
The kinds of bacteria that can cause problems in wells are usually from fecal matter, and can contain E. coli and other disease-causing strains. While documented cases of people becoming sick from drinking well water are few, it can still be a concern.
According to Susan Mallette with the Division of Water, this contamination can come from several sources on the surface as it seeps into the ground. One of the ways these bacteria get in to water supplies in through straight piping.
“Straight piping affects mostly surface water, but the surface water and ground water are always in communication,” said Mallette.
Another more direct cause is failing septic systems. The fecal matter is already below ground and able to flow through cracks in the rock.
“People often think that ground water is very clean because of the filtration effect of going through the ground,” said Mallette. “But especially in limestone areas, there will be very little filtration because it won’t actually go through much.”
Human interaction with the surrounding ground water is one thing being testing for, however, these bacteria can also be introduced into wells by natural causes as well. Animal feces as well as flooding can also cause contamination.
Mallette said she is not sure what is prompting the study, but she does not anticipate that they will find a massive problem with Kentucky’s wells.
“We don’t anticipate a problem, and we certainly hope there is no problem,” said Mallette.
While officials are not doing the study because they feel there is a problem, they are hoping to gather data on a relatively unstudied topic.
“We don’t have a lot of data on bacteria and wells,” said Phil O’dell, also with the Division of Water. “We have a lot of chemical data. This is just a way to start to get a little of that type of data in our database.”
O’dell said while this has been a problem in some areas in the past, it has been fairly isolated. One place that they are sure they will find issues with bacteria is in shallow or hand dug wells.
“Shallow wells or hand dug wells are almost always contaminated with bacteria,” said O’dell.
Nearly all wells that are properly dug and sealed, he added, do not have these problems.
“It is not something that you find that is widespread,” said O’dell.
The study will consist of 200 wells across the state. It may be several months before all of the results are in, though testing could start as early as the next few weeks. While the grant to conduct the study will not include money for well repairs for wells found with bacteria, the results will be made known to the owners.
If the owner of the well suspects that their well may be contaminated, it can and should be tested by the homeowner, officials say. It is recommended that wells be tested every year, though wells should be tested more frequently if the owners notice a different taste to the water, have had repairs done, if anyone in the home becomes ill with gastrointestinal problems, or in an infant lives in the home.
To volunteer for this EPA and Dvision of Water study, you can contact Mallette at 502-564-3410, or by email at Susan.Mallette@ky.gov.