Washington state law requires property owners to properly decommission abandoned groundwater wells. The landowner may be responsible for any injury or occurrence of groundwater contamination caused by an abandoned well not properly decommissioned.
Any well, if not properly constructed or maintained, can pose safety and environmental problems. Children, adults, and animals face a risk of injury or death if they fall into these wells. Shallow, hand-dug wells are the most dangerous type of abandoned wells. Many were dug originally for field irrigation, but with crops no longer grown in the vicinity the fields are covered over by brush and vegetation and the wells are not easily seen.
If a dug well is still in use, or not yet decommissioned, state regulations under Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 173-160-261 require the well to be properly capped. The proper capping or covering of a well is required to prevent pollutants, objects, animals and people from entering the well.
Ecology relies on reports from property owners as to the location of abandoned wells and estimates these wells number anywhere from 10,000 to as many as 100,000 across the state. Unfortunately, many of these wells are reported to Ecology only after an animal has fallen into one.
The nation’s most dramatic example of how a well can trap a child dates back to 1987 when Baby Jessica, an 18-month-old toddler, was stuck in an abandoned well in Texas for 2½ days. That well was only eight inches in diameter and about 22-feet deep. Her rescue was followed worldwide and she did eventually recover from her injuries.
There have been no reported deaths of people falling into abandoned wells in recent years in Washington state but just about every year there are reports of dogs, horses or other farm animals injured or killed from a fall into an abandoned well. In August 2012, a 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 the well, which collapsed underneath the horse’s weight. In July 2012, a 13-year-old pet draft horse fell through a covering on an abandoned well near Shelton but was able to keep his head above water until fire department rescuers were able to pump the water from the well and pull him free.
Dogs have died or have been injured in recent years on Vashon Island and near Chehalis.
Note that abandoned wells cannot be used for animal carcass disposal. Proper disposal information is available from the Washington Department of Agriculture:
Abandoned wells also act as direct paths for contaminants to reach groundwater, affecting a property owner’s drinking water or the quality of his or her neighbors’ drinking water.
Decommissioning of an abandoned well often means filling the entire casing of the well with concrete, but this or any decommissioning work must be done by a water well driller licensed in Washington state. This is required by the Washington Well Construction Act Revised Code of Washington RCW 18.104. Property owners intending to decommission a well must fill out a:
Costs of decommissioning a well vary depending on the depth, diameter and geology of the area.
Landowners who don’t know the history of wells on their property should look for the following when searching for abandoned wells:
For more information on finding and decommissioning abandoned wells:
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