Op-Ed: Pennsylvania Needs Water Well Standards To Protect Public Health
By: Larry J. Schweiger, PennFuture President and CEO
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan shines a much-needed spotlight on public drinking water quality. Public outrage surrounding this crisis is understandable when regulations and standards intended to protect public health are sacrificed to save money.
In this case, lead is causing irreparable harm to 10,000 Flint children with developing brains and will continue to impact the unborn, infants and children for the foreseeable future.
We may not know the full costs for years as the ripple effect could result in a generation in need of increased social services and broad social costs as well as a less productive workforce.
The World Health Organization links lead poisoning to impaired mental development (including lower IQ), behavioral problems (such as hyperactivity, shortened attention span and antisocial behavior), and physical effects (like stunted growth, kidney damage, hypertension, hearing problems, and anemia).
A recent Vox review of Pennsylvania Department of Health data reveals 17 cities in the state where over 10 percent of children tested positive for dangerously elevated levels of lead in their blood.
While the whole story has yet to be written, it is abundantly clear that we cannot wait to reexamine procedures. We must increase protections at the local, state, and federal levels.
There is, however, a related issue that affects much of our state, especially suburban and rural communities. Pennsylvania is one of just two states with no construction standards for private water wells.
According to the Penn State Extension, 3.5 million residents, mostly in rural areas, rely on well water. That is 34 times the population of Flint. Coupled with the 20,000 new wells drilled each year, unsafe well water can quickly become a major statewide public health concern.
A recent study by the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Center for Rural Pennsylvania notes that 40 percent of wells have at least one water quality issue due to poor construction, including bacteria, lead, arsenic, and radon contamination.
Improperly constructed water wells and old uncapped wells can provide easy access for polluted surface runoff, contaminants, and bacteria from septic systems to get into a resident’s, or even a neighbor’s, drinking water supply.
Unfortunately and seemingly without reason, efforts to improve water well safety have stalled time and time again in the state legislature for decades.
House Bill 48, sponsored by state Rep. Robert Godshall (R – Montgomery), addresses many of the known issues with well water safety by ordering the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Environmental Quality Board to create rules identical or similar to recommendations by the National Ground Water Association.
House Bill 48 employs national best practices by (1) advancing new well construction standards, (2) advancing abandoned well decommissioning standards, (3) providing general assembly oversight, (4) authorizing penalties against those who fail to adhere to the aforementioned standards, and (5) keeping water well regulations separate from oil and gas well pad regulations, which are covered under different legislation.
Who better to stand up for this issue impacting suburban and rural Pennsylvania than someone who was personally sickened by contaminated well water?
Rep. Godshall, who has bone cancer, took up this issue after being severely sickened after drinking from well water at his Tioga County cabin. The newly drilled well was contaminated with e coli and coliform bacteria. We support his effort to protect public health and bring all well water to the safe standards.
This legislation doesn’t comprehensively address all lead poisoning, nor would it have averted a crisis like that in Flint. But House Bill 48 is a necessary step to protect the commonwealth’s groundwater supply – one that nearly every other state has already taken.
This bill is currently under second consideration before the House of Representatives and deserves a full vote.
As legislators return to session, join me in a renewed call for clean, safe drinking water for all Pennsylvanians because we all – rich, poor, urban, and rural – deserve safe drinking water.
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