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Public Drinking Water vs. Private Wells

September 23, 1998

Home Buyers: Check Drinking Water Well Carefully

By Stuart Lieberman, Esq
Realty Times

Groundwater Is Polluted Throughout U.S.

Many Americans mistakenly believe that water quality problems are found only in developing countries. The truth, however, is that much of the groundwater throughout the United States is contaminated. Since homeowners who rely on well water obtain their drinking water from the ground, it is very important for anyone considering a home purchase involving a drinking water well to test the well and make absolutely sure that the water is healthy and safe.

The problem is most significant for home owners with private wells. Though many public water suppliers also obtain their water from wells, these providers must regularly test the water and treat it if it does not satisfy strict legal requirements.

Unlike public water providers, private well owners often mistakenly believe that their water is “free” of charge and they should not spend money to periodically test the quality of their water. This is a serious mistake. If you have a private well, you must test the water quality at regular intervals. Otherwise, you have no way of knowing whether there are problems with the water. And if you are purchasing a well water dependent house, you need to test before you take title.

Well Water Problems Have Been Reported

We hear of well problems with increasing frequency. Recently, residents of LaGrange County, Indiana reported a suspicious number of miscarriages. In response, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention investigated whether the miscarriages were caused by contaminated well water originating from animal waste at nearby farms. Several states have investigated the affects of animal waste on well water and recent federal agricultural rules have sought better controls over farm waste management.

Industrial waste has also been linked to ground water pollution. In 1995, a federal judge ruled that Navy waste contaminated several wells which were linked to various illnesses and deaths in Jacksonville, Florida. And in Toms River, New Jersey, residents have claimed a link between an alleged cancer cluster and industrial releases affecting groundwater. Though the Toms River cases is still unresolved and in question, cancer clusters have popped up in other portions of the United States as well. When they do, well water is frequently considered to be suspect.

Retain Qualified Assistance

For these reasons, any purchaser of a new home with a well should retain professional assistance to evaluate the water quality. Since many purchasers quickly become cash strapped, this might require money that is not readily available. But, a qualified inspection is always worth a reasonable fee.

You need to ensure that the well works and is in good order. More importantly, you need to be sure that the water that comes from the well is water that you can safely ingest without making you or your family sick.

A qualified individual must be employed for this service. He or she must understand how “potable wells” (wells that produce drinking water) operate and how to take reliable water quality samples. Those samples will be taken to a certified laboratory and tested for a variety of metals, minerals, and contaminants. To some extent, exactly what is sampled for will be determined by what is likely to be in the water, in a worst case scenario.

For example, if your dream house is located near factories, there may be a reason to check for degreasers, perhaps petroleum (if any tanks had leaked), and any constituents peculiar to what is manufactured in the plants. A common issue in rural areas is bacteria levels found in well water caused by animal waste runoff. Rural residents need to also concern themselves with pesticide contaminants. You need to rely on you professional consultant to determine what you should sample for. If there is any question, you may ask local or state environmental and/or health agencies for assistance.

The federal government has developed guidelines to establish safe levels of various pollutants that may be found in drinking water. The list is a good guidance document. But it does not mean that well water with contaminant levels under those identified as dangerous by the government is water that should be considered to be acceptable. First, there is some controversy over the accuracy of these limits. This is illustrated by the fact that some states have limits that are more stringent than federal limits.

You also need to consider the pollution source. Groundwater contaminants often travel or “migrate” in a “plume.” Are you sampling the beginning of a plume? If so, it might be that higher levels will appear in the near future, as the plume travels. Will this be after you have purchased your home and you have no recourse?.

What to Do?

A home without healthy drinking water is obviously unacceptable. This is a serious issue, some contaminants have been linked to cancer and other diseases. Small treatment systems can occasionally treat well water to acceptable standards. If you wish to explore this route, there will have to be an agreement concerning who will pay for the filtration mechanism, how much will it cost to maintain the system, and whether any adjustment is appropriate to the purchase price.

Make sure that the proposed treatment mechanism is legal in your community. Make sure that experts believe it will work. Make sure that sources of off site contamination have been stabilized so that the problem will not worsen or change.

Some States have funds set up to assist home owners with bad well water. In such cases, the buyer and seller need to determine who will apply for such funds, and who will benefit from the proceeds if the application is successful. Again, competent professional guidance is required to evaluate these considerations. Where funds are available, there might be strictly enforced time limits by which applications need to be made.

In conclusion, even dream houses require drinkable water. Bad water can make people sick. And even the “stigma” of bad water (whether or not the water is bad) may lower the value of a house. Before purchasing a house, qualified experts must evaluate the quality of the potable water supply, and provide viable alternatives in the event the water is inferior. The key to this issue is that it needs to be resolved before the purchase, not after the purchase.

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