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Does an abandoned well need to be capped or removed?
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
The danger of an abandoned well got international attention when 18-month-old “Baby Jessica” McClure fell down a well in her aunt’s backyard in Midland, Texas, on October 14th, 1987. She was trapped for 58 hours before a rescue team pulled her out. Jessica’s ordeal became a television drama, played out hour-by-hour around the world, as several initial attempts to get her out failed before the final successful rescue.
But that was a dug well, large enough for a toddler to fall into, and the hazard posed by an abandoned drilled well that’s only a couple of inches in diameter—like the one shown above—is not as well known. If you think of the underground aquifer as a bowl of clear water and the thousands of wells as straws poked into it, then the problem caused when an open straw allows debris and bacteria to fall down into the bowl and contaminate the water becomes clear.
Because contamination of the aquifer is a public safety issue, Florida Administrative Code 40E-3.351 - Abandoned Well Plugging requires that “all abandoned wells shall be plugged by filling them from the bottom up with grout” and “the work shall be performed by a licensed well water contractor.” Simply capping the top of the casing is not acceptable because the casing itself will fail over time. The material used to backfill and seal the well often has bentonite clay as part of composition because of its ability to expand when wet.
Wells in our area become abandoned for several different reasons:
- The well collapses, level of the aquifer retreats lower, or the water quality delivered by the well deteriorates, and a new well must be drilled, usually nearby.
- Municipal water service becomes available as the suburbs expand around a rural home. Some jurisdictions require connection to the utility’s water when it becomes available.
- A shallow well, used only for landscape irrigation, was abandoned when the pump failed.
Decommissioning an old well can be expensive, costing $500 and up. Because it is both a health/safety and financial defect, we call out abandoned wells on our home inspection report when we come across them. If the equipment above ground has been removed, it can be difficult to spot one during a walk around a property, and sometimes we only notice the head of the casing by tripping over it in the underbrush, or following a loose electrical cable along the ground.
Here’s what to look for when searching for an out-of-service well:
- Pipes sticking out of the ground, usually with a threaded end.
- A well pressure tank with pipe running into the ground.
- Small shed that may have been used as well house. After the well was abandoned, the shed may have been recycled into a storage space and the old well head could be buried under a pile of stored items.
Any old survey or house plan for the property may have information about the well location. Because septic tanks have to be installed at least 75 feet away from a well, the diagram that is required to be submitted to the Florida Health Department showing the septic tank location will also show where a well was located at the time the septic tank was installed.
Then again, the pipe sticking out of the ground can be something other than the remains of an abandoned well, such as the fill-pipe for an old and long-forgotten underground fuel oil tank. Here’s two examples below. Two pipes coming out of the ground, one with a flip-up cap and the other with a mushroom-shaped vent cap, are typical. One of the pipes or a cap may be missing when you discover it.
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