2017-07-01 / Today's Top Stories

Results of landmark Bradford County well water study released

In general, good quality groundwater found in the 72 wells tested

BY JAMES LOEWENSTEIN

Staff Writer

TOWANDA — A government study done last summer found that there was "generally good quality ground water" in 72 private wells sampled throughout Bradford County, a hydrologist with U.S. Geological Survey said.

The $369,750 study, which was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, involved taking one water sample from each of 72 randomly-selected private, domestic wells, John Clune, a hydrologist with the agency, said in a presentation on the results of the study, which he gave at the Towanda Gun Club in Asylum Township.

Using the samples, the study measured a comprehensive list of substances in the well water that can affect water quality, including major ions, metals, nutrients, bacteria, radiochemicals, gases and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), according to the information posted on the county's website.

Prior to 2011, there was a lack of data on the quality of water drawn by private wells in Pennsylvania's Northern Tier, Clune said.

To address the insufficient data, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began doing studies in 2011 to measure the quality of water drawn by private wells in Wayne, Pike, and Lycoming counties, he said.

In addition, "last summer we did one (of the studies) in Bradford County," he added.

Moreover, another of the studies is ongoing in Clinton County, and the USGS is proposing to do an additional study in Tioga County, he said.

The Bradford County study, which was funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the USGS, and Guthrie, details the current conditions of groundwater in the county, according to the county's website.

"The idea (of the study) is to get a background reading — a baseline of what the water quality is like in Bradford County," Clune said in his presentation.

The study can help determine if there are any changes in the future in the quality of groundwater in the region and if there are any health effects associated with those changes, according to the county's website.

The study "was not designed to see if there were any issues (affecting water quality) from the gas industry," Clune said.

The study used a grid to determine which wells to sample, so that there would be "an even distribution" of wells sampled throughout the county, said Mark Stephens, a geologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Specifically, "we divided the county into 72 different cells, and randomly placed a dot within each cell and tried to find a well where that dot was," Clune said.

The owners of each well had to agree to participate in the study.

The samples of the well water were sent to various labs to be analyzed, Clune said.

In order to evaluate the water quality in the 72 wells, the study used drinking water standards aimed at protecting human health, he said.

These standards "are not really developed for private land owners" because privately owned domestic wells are not regulated by the government, Clune said.

"These standards are to ensure safe water for public water supplies," Clune said. Nevertheless, the standards can be used as a guide for what the quality of water should be in private wells, he said.

The study evaluated whether some of the components in the samples, such as arsenic and barium, exceeded the "maximum contaminant level" (mcl) for the drinking water standards. Components that exceed the mcl "could have adverse health effects," Clune explained.

The study evaluated whether other components, such as manganese, exceeded their "secondary maximum contaminant levels" (smcl).

Components that exceed their smcl are "not a risk to human health," but could have an aesthetic effect, such as causing stains in bathtubs or on clothing or affecting the taste, color, or odor of the water, he said.

Below are the main findings of the Bradford County study:

Total dissolved solids

In 95 percent of the wells, the total dissolved solids (TDS) in the water was below the smcl of 500 milligrams/liter, Clune said. The total dissolved solids in 4 percent of the wells was between 500 and 1,000 milligrams/liter. The TDS in 1 percent of the wells exceeded 1,000 milligrams/liter, which is in the "more brackish" range, Clune said.

pH

Water that has a low pH is relatively acidic and can cause corrosion of pipes, Clune said. Water that has a high pH, which is alkaline, is a nuisance issue, because it can cause scales to form that contain mineral deposits, he said.

Sixty-six of the 72 wells were within the maximum contaminant level, having a pH between 6.5 and 8.5, Clune said.

Only two wells were acidic, he said. The other four wells were relatively alkaline, having a pH above 8.5.

Acidic water can leach metals into water, he said.

Arsenic and barium

For both arsenic and barium, 3 percent of the wells were above the maximum contaminant level, Clune said. "That's very similar to what we've found in other counties," he said.

Lead

In the water of all wells tested, lead was below the maximum contaminant level, Clune said. Elevated levels of lead can be caused by corrosive water being in contact with lead pipes or with lead components in a plumbing system, he said.

Testing of the well water samples was done at a point where it was not affected by any water treatment system for the home, such as at an outdoor spigot, he said. Before a sample was taken, the water from the well was run for a half-hour to an hour to flush the well's system, he said.

If the well's system had not been flushed and the well water had been sampled after the well had been left unused overnight, the amount of lead in the water could have been higher than what was found in the study, he said.

Manganese

Approximately 30 percent of the wells exceeded the secondary maximum contaminant level for manganese, which is not a health issue, he said. "It's more of an aesthetic standard," he said.

Elevated levels of manganese can give a strong metallic taste to water and causes staining.

Total coliform bacteria

In a laboratory, the water samples from many of the Bradford County wells produced elevated levels of total coliforms, which are colonies of bacteria from the total coliform group, Clune said.

The government wants to see the zero total coliforms grown in these lab tests, he said.

Elevated levels of total coliform bacteria is not a health threat in and of itself, according to the EPA.

However, elevated levels of total coliform bacteria "is a good indication of the potential for bacteria to get in the well from (the infiltration of) surface water," Clune said. And some bacteria carried by surface water into the well's water could cause diseases, according to Penn State Extension.

One way that surface water can infiltrate well water is during a rainstorm, when water can run down the outside of a well casing that is not properly grouted into the groundwater, he said.

In the samples from 51 percent of the wells tested, total coliforms were undetectable or less then one colony of bacteria, he said.

Thirty-two percent of the wells had one to 10 total coliform colonies; 10 percent had 11 to 100 total coliform colonies; and the rest had over 100 colonies, he said.

The elevated levels of total coliform colonies in Bradford County are very similar to what was found in Lycoming and Wayne counties, he said.

Among the methods for addressing elevated levels of total coliform bacteria are to do "shock chlorination" to disinfect a well, or to install a tight, sanitary well cap that prevents insects and surface water from entering the well, according to Penn State Extension.

E. coli bacteria

Ninety-three percent of the wells in Bradford County had no E. coli bacteria, he said. Six percent had a small amount of E. coli bacteria, and 1 percent had "a lot" of E. coli, Clune said.

E. coli in water can cause gastro-intestinal illnesses, especially if someone was not used to drinking the water from the well, Clune said.

Radon

The primary source of radon in homes is from the underlying soil and bedrock, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. However, an additional source could be the water supply, particularly if the house is served by a private well, the DEP said.

The EPA recommends that if a home served by a private well has radon in the air at levels above 4 picocuries per liter, the water should be tested for the presence of radon.

All but one of the wells tested in Bradford County have less than 4,000 picocuries of radon per liter, which is a recommended maximum contaminant level for radon, Clune said.

"The good news is that almost all the wells were below the recommended maximum contaminant level for radon," Clune said.

Four-thousand picocuries per liter of radon in well water would contribute 0.4 picocuries per liter of radon in the air.

As a rule, 10,000 picocuries per liter of radon in water contributes 1 picocurie per liter of radon in the air, he said.

Methane

There are naturally occurring pockets of methane in Bradford County, Clune said.

Eighty-six percent of the wells in the Bradford County study had no methane or less than 2 milligrams/liter of methane; 7 percent had between 2 and 26 milligrams/liter; and 7 percent had over over 26 milligrams per liter of methane, he said.

Methane gas alone does not cause health problems in drinking water, but it does escape quickly from water, causing an explosive hazard in poorly ventilated or confined areas in homes, according to Penn State Extension. There have been rare cases in Pennsylvania where houses, camps or wells have exploded due to methane accumulation, according to Penn State Extension.

The U.S. Department of Interior, Office of Surface Mining, suggests that homeowners with wells that have methane concentrations above 28 milligrams/liter take immediate action to reduce the methane level. Homeowners with wells that have 10 to 28 milligrams/liter should routinely monitor the well to ensure that the amount of methane in the water is not increasing and may want to consider reducing the amount.

Based on preliminary results from the study, the methane in the water samples "seems to represent background levels of methane found (naturally) in the region" rather than methane from gas drilling, Clune said.

Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) can be found in, for example, household chemicals and in paints, and "are a concern" in drinking water, Clune said.

The Bradford County study tested for 69 different different VOCs in each water sample. In all but one of the wells, there were no VOCs that were detected, he said. One well did have three VOCs, he said.

The USGS is now doing a more in-depth analysis of the results of the study, Clune said.

A published, peer-reviewed report on the study will be released, probably next year, he said.

James Loewenstein can be contacted at (570) 265-2151 ext. 1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.

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