Ecology offers landowners advice on reducing threat to children and animals from abandoned wells

Every year farm animals or pets are injured or die in Washington state after falling into abandoned water wells that have not been properly “decommissioned” (filled in) and capped.

Among the reports received this year by the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) was an 1,800-pound horse that fell into an abandoned well in Centralia in August after a concrete lid covering the top of the well collapsed under the horse’s weight.  The horse died during a rescue attempt by local firefighters. In July, a 13-year-old pet draft horse fell through a covering on an abandoned well near Shelton but was pulled from the well by fire department rescuers.  In April of 2011, two Labrador retrievers that ran away from their Maury Island home were found drowned in an old well less than a half-mile away.

There have been no reports of people falling into abandoned wells in Washington in recent years, but the wells are of particular danger to children and can be found anywhere.   In August, a woman digging in her garden in Seattle reported to Ecology what was determined to be an abandoned cistern.  It had created a hole 13 feet deep with an opening of one to two feet wide.  The woman had the hole filled in with concrete.

To locate and to ensure abandoned wells are properly decommissioned, property owners are encouraged to report these wells and seek advice from Ecology’s well construction and licensing program.  Landowners may face legal liability for injuries or groundwater contamination caused by abandoned wells that are not properly filled in and capped.

“Many abandoned wells date back to the post-World War II housing boom and were dug to serve single-family homes.  Many of these wells have been covered over by brush or forest,” said Bill Lum, Ecology’s well construction and licensing coordinator. “Ecology has no way to track these wells unless they are reported.”  The number of abandoned wells in the state may be anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000.

State law requires a licensed well driller to fill an abandoned well with concrete, bentonite clay or grout.  Once sealing materials are in place, landowners are allowed to put up to three feet of soil on top of that.

Ecology works with property owners on how to locate and properly decommission abandoned wells.

“We do have the authority to fine property owners for noncompliance with these laws, but we’ve never used it,” Lum said.  “Our priority is to help property owners do the right thing for public safety and to ensure these wells are properly filled in and represent no danger to children and animals.”

Seventeen of Washington’s 39 counties have delegated authority to inspect well construction and oversee the decommissioning of wells.  Counties that have the most success in having property owners properly cap abandoned wells are those with strong drinking water programs in their health departments, requiring old wells on a property to be identified and decommissioned before a building permit can be issued.  Kitsap, Clark, Pierce and Thurston counties are the most successful counties in term of well decommissioning work.

Property owners should go to a new Ecology Web page, Decommissioning of Abandoned Wells for information on how to locate and fill in abandoned wells or call Ecology at 360-407-6648.


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