Well safety pumped up

Lawmakers pass bill on monitoring, water testing

Staff WriterJuly 19, 2006 

State legislators voted Tuesday to require counties to monitor the construction of wells at private homes and small businesses, another in a series of reforms to protect drinking water.

The legislation also requires counties to test for more than a dozen contaminants in new drinking water wells.

The Senate and House votes send the legislation to Gov. Mike Easley, who is expected to sign it. This was Easley's bill, and his administration worked to eliminate concerns of home builders and real estate interests, who did not want home sales impeded.

"It's a great step forward for public health and water quality," said Franklin Freeman, one of the governor's top aides.

The Senate vote was 29-19, with most Republicans voting no. The House concurred, 101-2.

The News & Observer reported in March that more than 2 million North Carolinians get their water from private wells and that most of them are at risk. The state required no tests for contaminants; neither do most counties. The state enacted well construction standards in 1972 but, for the most part, has not enforced them. Only eight state employees are assigned to that job statewide.

Health officials have tried several times since the early 1990s to get approval of a statewide well bill.

"I know it goes back to two of my predecessors," said Terry L. Pierce, director of the state Division of Environmental Health. He said he expected the county well programs to be phased in over two years.

'Biggest gap' plugged

In legislative committees, administration officials had urged passage of the well bill.

Freeman said that Easley considered it "one of the two or three most important policy matters to come before this body this year.''

Dr. Leah Devlin, state health director, said the lack of well construction or testing programs in about two-thirds of the state's 100 counties was "the biggest regulatory, environmental gap we have in health protection."

Until now, the state has not required any tests of private wells, even though it has documented more than 25,000 soil and water contamination sites. It also has extensive information about the location of natural killers such as arsenic, which exists in soil and minerals and can dissolve into well water. Most contaminants damage a person's health over a period of years, similar to cigarette smoke.

This legislation is directed primarily at the 500 new wells that Devlin estimates are being drilled each week. Tests of existing wells won't be required, but repairs will be regulated.

Agency's pleas for help

In a series of stories published in March, The N&O also reported that the state Public Water Supply Section, which is supposed to regulate the almost 7,000 public water systems in North Carolina, had been overwhelmed.

Thousands of systems weren't obeying laws requiring them to test their water and clean up contamination. Hundreds did not have a certified operator. State regulators rarely levied fines, and when they did, they usually did not collect.

The agency's requests for assistance, dating back to 2001, had been assigned a low priority by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and ignored by the Governor's Office.

This year, the department's top budget priority was for grant money to help counties create well programs and to hire five more state employees to assist them -- a total of $1.1 million. Legislators approved that request this month.

The department's second priority, money to hire 19 additional personnel -- an increase of about 20 percent -- also was approved by the General Assembly.

The state won't began hiring those workers until next year, Pierce said, because the money will come from an increase in public water system permit fees that won't take effect until January.

Staff writer Pat Stith can be reached at 829-4537 or pstith@newsobserver.com.

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