State, local well regulators on the way

No one knows how many wells are planted in the mountainsides of Western North Carolina.


Well drillers are supposed to report every well they drill to the state, but it’s based on the honor system and doesn’t always get done. In fact, the state estimates as few as 60 percent of wells actually get reported.

That leaves well data woefully lacking. It also means no one is double-checking wells for contamination before homeowners start using them, or for proper drilling techniques.

To solve the problem, the state passed a new law requiring well drillers or homeowners to get a well permit before they drill, not merely sending in paperwork after the fact. According to the law, counties will be responsible for issuing the permits.

It won’t go into effect until July 2008, but several counties in Western North Carolina are already gearing up their well permit programs and plan to start early.

Swain will require well permits starting July 1 of this year. Haywood plans to start by the end of the year. Macon County is waiting until July of 2008.

Jackson County, on the other hand, is one of a few counties in the state that already had well regulations. Jackson’s regulations have been in place since 2002. They were prompted by the number of contaminated wells found during spot checks for homeowners who requested testing.

“A significant portion were coming back positive for bacteria,” said Jamie Dillinger, a Jackson well inspector. “That gave us the impetus to implement the well program to hopefully alleviate the problem.”

When mandatory inspections were launched, the results were shocking.

“When we first started the program about 30 percent of our wells were coming back positive for bacteria,” said Sam Buchanan, coordinator for the Jackson well testing program.

Five years later, the number of well water samples that test positive for bacteria has been reduced to just 3 percent.

“It has made a significant difference,” Buchanan said. The reason? Well drillers have tightened their practices, especially in how wells are sealed to outside contaminants.

Currently, well drillers have to be certified, but there’s no one checking on them in most counties that lack a permit program.

“There is no oversight when they drill a well. Most of the time people start using a well without it ever being inspected for compliance,” said Linda White, Swain County health director. “The goal is to ensure that the private water supplies that people drink are in good condition.”


How it will work

Under the new state mandate, well inspections and permits will be issued at the county level by the same office that does septic tank permits. As part of the permit process, a well inspector will make three to four visits to the well site. The first visit is to OK the well’s location on the property, primarily to make sure it is far enough away from septic tank fields to avoid contamination. A couple of visits are made during construction: once at the outset to make sure the well is properly stabilized and won’t collapse, another toward the end to make sure it is sealed at the surface and things can’t get down in it. The final visit is to collect water samples.

Steve Ballentine, environmental health director in Haywood County, said his office has long been concerned with wells being located far enough away from septic tanks. Although Haywood has no well regulations per say, inspectors found a way around the lack of oversight, Ballentine said. The building inspector wouldn’t issue a final permit for electricity to a house until environmental health inspectors made a final site visit, mainly to check the well.

Haywood County plans to hire two extra staff to handle well permits — which Ballentine estimates will run around 500 a year. The state is offering a little seed money for counties — about $10,000 — to get their well programs up and running.

“It’s one of the few times the state has offered start-up money,” said Ballentine.

Jackson County, which already has a well program, has been lobbying for its share of seed money. It seems, however, that Jackson County might be left out, even though its needs for training well inspectors are just as high as elsewhere despite the prior existence of a program.

Counties will charge for well permits — most are looking at about $300 per permit — but it won’t cover the full cost of staff since some of that has to pay for the water testing.


Inspector crunch

The biggest hitch in the new well regulations will likely be finding well testers. There simply aren’t enough to go around.

Swain County has been in a constant struggle to keep a team of environmental health inspectors employed. Lack of staff led to massive back-ups in septic tank permitting a couple of years ago.

Swain has been advertising for a well tester for several weeks, with hopes of launching the program July 1. But no certified environmental health inspectors have applied.

“It is almost impossible,” White said. “You basically have to get an intern and send them to training.”

That doesn’t last long, however, as most will then move on to a county with higher pay.

Jackson County has had similar problems. It recently lost two inspectors after spending more than a year training them.

“They went on to other counties and got about a $5,000 raise, so that’s really hurt us,” Buchanan said.

Jackson County plans to add additional inspectors to keep up with the demand for well and septic tank permits, but it will be tough with the new state regulations that have every county scrambling to hire.

“We are looking at a major backlog of registered people,” Buchanan said. “It is has become very competitive.”

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