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Drinking water wells need state's protection

• Aug 24, 2017 at 6:00 PM

A confluence of recent headlines leaves a bad taste in our mouths — and worse.

First, a project by journalism students at Arizona State University reveals that very nearly all the 45 million Americans who rely on private wells for their drinking water have no idea what they are putting into their bodies. Public water systems are required to test their source water, to purify it to federal standards, and to provide detailed reports on contaminants.

There are no similar requirements for private wells.

Private wells, and the aquifers they draw water from, can and do become contaminated. The mechanics are simple and obvious. Groundwater aquifers have long provided clean, safe drinking water because they are isolated from the activities on the surface by dozens or hundreds of feet of soil, clay and rock. Every well drilled through those layers of rock and soil, however, exposes that underground reservoir of clean water to surface contaminants.

Those contaminants include human waste, pesticides and fertilizers, industrial chemicals and byproducts of petroleum extraction. It's not a theoretical concern. The Berlin and Farro Superfund Site in Genesee County sits above groundwater contaminated when illegally dumped toxic waste leaked into abandoned wells.

It is why farmers are warned to site wells far away from crop fields and from animal operations. Anyone who has both a private water well and private septic system needs to be checking the health of both frequently.

Wells put aquifers at risk.

That's why Michigan has regulations for the installation of water wells and for their closure. The law is mostly mute on what happens in between, though.

But there is a class of wells that the law ignores. In fact, its website says, "The DEQ does not have authority to regulate their installation under the state well code."

That's the second headline: Contractors are drilling hundreds of wells for a geothermal heating system for the Capitol in downtown Lansing into the aquifer that provides the city's drinking water. And there are no rules.

Geothermal heating has been around for decades. There are likely thousands in Michigan. Each threatens someone's drinking water. Yet there are no rules.

That is something lawmakers need to think about the next time their throats feel a little dry.

— TIMES HERALD/PORT HURON (AP)

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