Proper care of your water well can be a matter of life and death

An 83-year-old woman in Waterville, Washington did not have a very merry Christmas this past year: she fell into a well on Christmas Eve and sat in cold water for 20 minutes before she was rescued.

Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident. As this blog goes to press, Ecology has learned of two more well-related incidents since the new year began. A construction worker in Shelton fell through rotted boards and down a 45-foot well on January 9. This story was covered in “The Olympian” and by King 5 news.

On January 8, Ecology was alerted by Mason County Public Health that a man fell 30 feet into water in a 42-foot dug well. Luckily other people were nearby and he was quickly rescued by the fire department.

Equipment being used to inspect a well.

Rotting plywood gave way over a well and a woman fell to her death.

Every year people and animals are injured or killed from a fall into an abandoned or improperly covered water well. Although in recent years there were no reported deaths of people falling into wells in Washington, as recently as August 2012 a woman in Riddle, Oregon fell into a well and drowned. The well was covered with a sheet of plywood that gave way (see photo).

The Oregon woman’s death is a harsh reminder of how any well, if not properly constructed and maintained, can pose safety and environmental problems. The most dangerous are shallow, hand-dug wells. Many of these were originally dug for irrigation, but are no longer in use and covered over by brush and vegetation, making them hard to see. These wells are fairly common in Washington State: for example, there are estimated to be thousands of abandoned wells in King County alone.

State law requires that abandoned wells be decommissioned (filled in), and that wells in use or not decommissioned be properly capped (covered).

Stories of well-related tragedies not uncommon in 2012

Many sad stories reinforce the importance of proper capping and decommissioning. In November, a horse fell into a well and died in rural Thurston County. The cover to the well had decayed and the property owner replaced the cover with a tarp and installed a fence. But over time the fence fell down and horses started grazing around the open well.

In August, an 1,800-pound horse fell into an abandoned well in Centralia and died after a rescue attempt by local firefighters. The horse had stepped on top of a concrete lid that covered the top of a dug well, which collapsed underneath the horse’s weight. A concrete cap does not always offer good well cap protection, as shown in this case where a previous property owner may have used a poor quality cement mixture that was not structurally sound.

In July, a 13-year-old pet draft horse fell through a covering on a dug well that was still in use, near Shelton. The property owner was able to keep the horse’s head above water until fire department rescuers were able to pump the water from the well and pull the horse free.

In recent years, there have been reports of dogs on Vashon Island and near Chehalis who fell into dug wells and died or were injured. In these cases, the property owners covered a dug well with wood which eventually decayed.

Landowner responsible for capping or decommissioning

Washington law holds the current landowner responsible for the proper capping or decommissioning of wells. The landowner could be responsible for any injury or death of animals or humans that may fall into improperly covered wells, and any incidence of contamination.

For wells in use, or not yet decommissioned, proper covering with concrete or non-decaying materials is essential to eliminate any safety hazards. Property owners should inspect and maintain the cover of the well frequently to ensure the cover will not collapse.

A licensed well driller will work with you to decommission a well. A licensed driller has the necessary experience with well construction and decommissioning materials and methods. They also know about the local geology. All of this knowledge is necessary to safely and properly close a well. State law prohibits filling an abandoned well with “dirt” or any other unapproved material.