The Water Below: Poison in Our Wells

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

Two of five Virginians get their drinking water from wells — about the same proportion as the rest of the South. But until recently, little attention has been given to protecting the ground water that feeds these wells. In a four-month project that led to a four-day series (February 21-24, 1987), staff writer Dwayne Yancey analyzed the national and local context for the growing concern. He profiled communities at risk in detail, used sources like anti-poverty groups to link water quality to larger issues, and explained how the area's ground water could be better monitored and protected. 


Western Virginia — The environmental movement has gone underground. 

For years, environmentalists have focused on cleaning up the nation's lakes and rivers. Now they've turned to a problem that's less visible, far more difficult, and in many ways more pressing — the quality of the well water we drink. 

Wilma Warren, who heads a Total Action Against Poverty agency in Roanoke that deals with water issues, says ground water — which 2.2 million Virginians, about 41 percent, drink every day — is rapidly emerging as "the No. 1 environmental problem." 

In Virginia, ground water pollution complaints more than quadrupled in six years, from 29 in 1979 to 129 in 1985. 

Roanoke County, which gets half of its public water from ground water, had to shut down three of its most productive municipal wells, supplying close to one million gallons of water a day, after they became contaminated by gasoline. The Shenandoah Valley town of Berryville had to build a $ 1.3 million pipeline to get water from the Shenandoah River after its wells were contaminated with chemicals from an unknown source. 

In Botetourt County, Mary McGee's dogs died at her Troutville kennel after her well was contaminated by a highway department salt pile. In Buckingham County, Carroll and Ann Gillispie have been hauling water in milk jugs from a neighbor's house for four years, ever since they learned their well had been contaminated by a landfill. 

"Ground water is mostly mysterious and unmonitored, so unless there's a spill or a well contaminated or some other incident, you really don't know what's going on down there," says Rich Collins, an environmental expert at the University of Virginia. "People refer to it as a hidden resource. Even if you're interested, it's hard to find out what it's connected to." 

Federal studies indicate that no more than one to three percent of the nation's ground water has been contaminated, and then, because it moves so slowly, only in quite specific places. Ground water advocates such as the internationally known Jay Lehr of the National Water Well Association say that's good news, that we've caught the problem of ground water contamination before it has become too serious. 

But the ground water that is contaminated is often the ground water closest to big cities, the ground water most likely to be tapped by future wells. 

♦ On Long Island, N.Y., more than 200 common chemicals — from spot removers, oven cleaners and toilet bowl cleaners up to gasoline and pesticides — have been identified in the ground water. In all, wells serving two million people in 36 communities have been shut down. 

♦ In California, 39 wells serving 400,000 people in 13 cities were closed after the ground water became contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. 

♦ In Colorado, 30 square miles of ground water near Denver has been contaminated by pesticides that leaked from a factory's holding ponds. 

♦ In New Jersey, a court three years ago ordered Jackson Township to pay $16 million to 97 families whose wells were contaminated by a municipal landfill. The families blamed the landfill for an increase in cancer cases and other illnesses in the community. 

Virginia has nothing so alarming — that we know about. 

"We have been spared, thankfully, the real horror stories that have shut down municipal systems in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts," says David Bailey, head of the Virginia chapter of the Environmental Defense Fund, the state's major environmental lobby. 

"But Virginia has not been spared the multitude of small catastrophes — leaking gas tanks, industrial lagoons and industrial sites where old drums have been stored. People's wells have been shut down and people are drinking water they shouldn't be." 

Most of the major cases of ground water pollution have been in Virginia's urban east, where the wells are shallow (because the ground water is closer to the surface in the sandy soil) and industries more common. 

But the rural west — especially the limestone country of the Shenandoah Valley — is just as vulnerable, if not more so. Wells are deeper, but the valley sits on a honeycomb of caverns and rock fractures, so pesticides and septic wastes can slip into a crack in the rocks, go directly into the ground water and turn up miles away in no time, a significant exception to the slow movement of most ground water. 

"We're at such great risk in this valley," says Richard Halpern, the county planner in Rockingham County, because ground water sometimes moves quickly and unpredictably—and without the filtering effect of eastern Virginia's sandy soil. 

Grant Goodell, a doctor of environmental science at the University of Virginia, is testing water from more than 200 wells in Frederick and Clarke counties at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. 

Besides having the thinnest soil in the valley, both are big apple-growing counties — and orchards are notorious for the amount of sprays they use. 

Six years ago, chemicals found in pesticides and fertilizers turned up in the two town wells of Berryville, the Clarke County seat. No one knew exactly where the chemicals came from. 

The wells had to be shut immediately. Fortunately, the town had an abandoned reservoir in the mountains it could use until it built a million-dollar pipeline to pump water from the Shenandoah River. 

The truck-farming country of the Eastern Shore has exactly the opposite geology from the Shenandoah Valley — sandy soil and a high water table. But because the water table there is so close to the surface, it may be just as vulnerable to pesticide contamination. 

"I'm scared to even find out what's in there," says Fay Lohr, director of an anti-poverty group on the Eastern Shore. "I think ground water contamination from pesticide has some relationship to the high cancer rate here" — an incredible 65 percent higher than the state's average. 

Contaminated ground water might not be such a big deal if it could be cleaned up as easily as lakes and rivers. But its very nature — oozing around way down in the ground somewhere, not neatly confined in a riverbed — makes it hard to deal with. 

Roanokers old enough to remember bobby socks and tailfins also remember the old American Viscose plant, a smoke-stacked, red-bricked beast of a factory that sprawled low along the Roanoke River. 

For 41 years, it hummed with workday regularity, one of the valley's surest employers. But with the end of World War II and new synthetic fibers coming along, the demand for its rayon dropped sharply. The plant's sudden closing in 1958 threw 2,000 men and women out of work and cast an economic pall over the Roanoke Valley. 

Today's Roanokers could be the lucky ones. The company kept its sister plant at Front Royal, a small town in the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. Now, Avtex Fibers is well known in Virginia, perhaps more well known than it would like to be. 

Chemical wastes stored in a vast network of lagoons have seeped underground, migrating beneath the Shenandoah River and poisoning wells in two subdivisions on the other side. Avtex is a classic example of the unpredictability of ground water and the hazards of even the most innocuous industrial practices. 

The ticking time-bombs of environmental pollution are going off all around us. An old landfill. A factory here. A long-ignored dump site there. But the most common threat to Virginia's rich supplies of ground water doesn't come from the big-time polluter that grabs all the headlines. 

Instead, the most common form of ground water pollution comes from an almost invisible source — from oil and gasoline leaking from underground tanks at gas stations, farms, factories, homes. 

"Hardly a week goes by that we don't get a call about this," says Mac Sterrett, a geologist in the State Water Control Board's Shenandoah Valley office. "They're everywhere. They're on every street comer in America, and we don't know how many we never hear about." 

At the crossroads of Sharon in rural Pittsylvania County, you can gas up at either the Austin Brothers service station or M.B. Tomlinson's Sharon Supermarket. 

M.B. Tomlinson first noticed the odor in the tap water at his store's grill three years ago. "It had a foul smell to it," he says. "It started as a gradual thing and then all at once, bam, it got really bad." 

Now the State Water Control Board is pumping 50 gallons of pure gasoline from the ground each week — and Tomlinson is headed to court against Danville's largest gas distributor, which owns the tanks at the Austin brothers' station. 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that more than a third of the underground tanks across America may be leaking, dripping 11 million gallons of gasoline into the ground water each year. 


Nationwide, theEPA says, the most common complaints about ground water pollution are about home septic systems, another hard-lo-control problem. In Virginia, complaints about domestic sewage rank second, right behind oil spills and leaking underground gas tanks. Of the 866 complaints the state Water Control Board received in the fiscal year ending July 1986, 223 were about domestic sewage, 244 about petroleum. 

And that, of course, is only what's formally reported. 

"Quite frankly, most people don't want to know what's in their water," says Jerry Peaks, a Health Department official in Abingdon, so they're not keen on having it tested. And even if their water is contaminated, they might have no reason to suspect it. "A household that would consistently consume the water would develop an immunity. But when they have visitors for the weekend who drink the water, they'd get sick and wouldn't know where it came from." 

So when you consider how many septic-contaminated wells likely go unnoticed and unreported, then "unquestionably, the overwhelming form of ground water contamination in the state, especially in rural areas, is bacterial," says Jason Gray of the Virginia Water Project. The Roanoke-based group, an offshoot of Total Action Against Poverty, focuses on providing water to poor rural residents who have no clean drinking water. 

"All the poor folks get the poor land, so they end up with septic systems that don't work and then get contaminated wells," says Charles George, another Virginia Water Project official. He guesses maybe one-third of the land in Virginia is unsuitable for septic drain fields; in some counties, as much as 60 percent of the land won't perk. 

Fincastle started talking about building a town water system when shallow, private wells in the Botetourt County seat became contaminated with fecal bacteria in the mid-1970s. "We'd been putting waste into the ground here for 200 years and it just couldn't take any more," Mayor Harold Eads says. The talk about a town water system finally turned to action when the ground water was made absolutely undrinkable by petroleum pollution. 

Speedwell in Wythe County also had to build a new water system when its spring became contaminated by nearby septic drain fields in the early 1980s. "The spring had been in use for 50 years but people had built up around it," says Jerry Peaks of the state Health Department. Wastewater from those septic fields eventually drained into the ground water feeding the spring. 

Exactly how common septic contamination is in Virginia is hard to say. Since 1982, the Health Department has been required to test private well water, but only when wells are installed at the same time as septic systems. In western Virginia, about 15 percent usually fail. 

Cornell University once did a survey that estimated that nearly one-third of all rural Americans are drinking water with high bacteria counts. 


During the 1980s, Virginia and the federal government have moved to regulate underground gas tanks, new septic systems, landfills, hazardous waste dumps — all the standard villains of ground water contamination. 

None of those regulations, however, can stop the more insidious causes of ground water contamination — farm chemicals, lawn fertilizers, storm runoff from dirty streets and parking lots, and all the mild-mannered industrial operations that don't fall under the category of hazardous wastes but could still, with a slip here or a spill there, pollute the ground water. 

"The biggest single roadblock to ground water protection is the reluctance of everybody in the whole world to deal with land use," says Charles George of the Virginia Water Project. "The only thing that affects ground water is what you do with the land on top of it." 

Dr. Goodell of U.Va. contends the state has wrongly "abdicated" zoning powers to local governments. 'There are two million Virginians on private wells with no protection at all of their water source," Goodell says. "To protect private well water, we will need some severe zoning changes. The zoning in one county can affect water quality in another." 

Florida will spend $125 million this year buying land to protect its rivers and areas around water recharge zones. Miami has taken what Goodell calls "draconian measures" to protect its municipal well water, setting up a forbidden zone around each of its wells. Within this zone, Miami "doesn't allow any filling stations or industries or commercial establishments that use chemicals that might accidentally get into the ground water," Goodell says. 

Miami's situation sounds extreme, but the spills or rain that falls on the ground eventually percolates down through the soil and recharges the ground water, carrying with it whatever poisons it picks up along the way. Along geological faults, where the underground rocks were broken by cataclysmic upheavals eons ago, ground water is usually plentiful and the rainwater more easily recharges the underground supplies. Controlling these so-called "recharge zones" is one of the keys to protecting ground water. 

Unfortunately, communities have grown up without regard for geology. "On the Eastern Shore, the main recharge area for all the ground water, runs right up the middle of the peninsula, along the only main road — U.S. 13 — where all the development is," George says. "So everything that could contaminate that water system sits on top of the main recharge area." 

"All you read in these trade journals anymore is ground water protection and ground water recharge," says John Hubbard, Roanoke County's assistant administrator for public facilities. "But unless you control the recharge zone, there's no way to control it. To do it here, you'd have to control the whole valley." That's one reason why the county wants to get away from its well-based water system and build a major reservoir off the Roanoke river west of Salem. 

Indeed, the Roanoke Valley has four major recharge zones, stretching from one end of the valley to the other. But one of them runs right under downtown Salem and Roanoke. Another passes under Williamson Road, where, for years, the city took the rainwater running off city streets and pumped the dirty storm water into deep disposal wells. 

"They were putting gas, oil, who knows what down in the ground water," Hubbard says. "The state stopped that. But a lot of times you can't control it. It would be impossible to control the recharge zone in the valley. You'd have to own the whole valley and then you wouldn't have anything to develop." 

State Water Control Board geologists say that's an exaggeration, but the point is the same — to protect ground water, state and local governments, for better or worse, must control what happens on the land. 

"The state has to make some hard decisions — 'No, you can't locate this factory here because it's too near the ground water,"' Bailey says. "Or, if you do locate an industrial lagoon in a karst region [with limestone caves and sinkholes], you have to go to great expense to prevent contamination, with lots of money up front, and the American public is hesitant to spend a lot of money to prevent something that hasn't happened here." 

But that's just the point, he says. It has happened before.