Every so often abandoned wells capture widespread attention when a child falls into an open shaft and disappears. However, abandoned wells pose numerous safety concerns every day that don't receive as much attention as a dramatic rescue or fatal accident.
Wells can be found almost anywhere, especially in Iowa where rural communities and farms depend on them for drinking water. As small farms merge into larger ones, however, farmsteads are abandoned, leaving thousands of unused wells throughout the state. Communities also have developed extensive public water systems, making individual wells obsolete.
It's difficult to determine the number of abandoned wells in Iowa. County assessors' records show there may be at least 35,000 unused wells, and census data suggest many, many more than that. In 1900, there were about 250,000 active farms in Iowa, compared to only 102,000 in 1992. More than 145,000 farmsteads have been abandoned in Iowa since the turn of the century, and most had at least one well.
Old windmills or pump houses make some abandoned wells easy to spot. Others are hidden beneath grass, brush, or collapsed buildings. These hidden holes can lead to personal injury or equipment damage. Worse yet, many hand-dug or bored wells are large enough to trap an unsuspecting child, wild animal, or pet.
Abandoned wells also threaten groundwater quality. Layers of soil and rock that cap groundwater supplies naturally filter out silt, bacteria, and some chemicals. This protection is destroyed when open holes drilled through the protective layers allow contaminants to directly enter groundwater. Contaminants also enter nearby private water supplies through missing or defective well caps and leaky casings on abandoned wells.
THE SAFE SOLUTION
Plugging materials must be strong, durable, and free from contaminants. To prevent migration of contaminants through the well bore and into valuable underground water sources, the well should be plugged with water-tight "sealing materials." When this is not economical, Iowa law allows "fill materials," such as clean sand, gravel, agricultural lime, or crushed stone, to be used with the sealing materials.
Effective well plugging calls for experience with well construction materials and methods, and a working knowledge of the geology of the well site. Inappropriate materials and methods can lead to settling, sudden collapse, and continued groundwater contamination. Once materials are in place, they're almost impossible to remove in correcting a defective job. Furthermore, most plugging operations require special tools to remove old pumps and piping, pumps to properly install sealing materials inside the well, and excavating equipment to remove the top four feet of casing, which is required by state law. Compacted soil also must be mounded over the well site to prevent water from collecting above the abandoned well.
Because of the difficulties, it is recommended that most wells be plugged by a certified well contractor. Check resources at the bottom of this page for more details.
In general, the law requires wells abandoned since April 25, 1990, to be plugged within 90 days of abandonment. Exceptions can be granted for wells designated as "standby wells," as long as they are in good repair and do not permit entry of contaminants.
The responsibility for plugging an abandoned well falls on the landowner, although cost-sharing grants are available. More details are available in the publications listed at the bottom of this page.
FOR THE FUTURE
Some people may say that well plugging is like "pouring money down the drain." However, open wells threaten safety and precious water resources. A few hundred dollars to plug an abandoned well could prevent contamination of drinking water or avoid a serious accident involving family or friends.
See answers at the end of the next section.
What can you do? Open, abandoned wells are a safety hazard. Consider these tips to reduce your risks:
Answers to quiz:
1-e; 2-True; 3-True; 4-a.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Publication #: Pm-1563f
This Fact Sheet is apart of a series from the Safe Farm Program, Iowa State University Extension, Ames, Iowa. Safe Farm promotes health and safety in agriculture. It is funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH #U05/CCU706051-03), Iowa State University, and a network of groups that serve Iowa farm workers and their families. Publication date: November 1994.
Prepared by Tom Glanville, extension agricultural engineer; edited by Laura Miller, extension communications, Iowa State University Extension, Ames, Iowa.
Disclaimer and Reproduction Information: Information in NASD does not represent NIOSH policy. Information included in NASD appears by permission of the author and/or copyright holder. More