Plugging an abandoned well is the right thing to do for your health, safety and the environment

Abandoned water wells are a source of contamination of drinking water supplies that many people never think about.

While many Michigan residents obtain their drinking water from surface water supplies from the Great Lakes, there are still thousands of people who continue to depend on groundwater from private water wells to obtain their drinking water. Over time, many properties have wells that are no longer used. In addition, older homes often have an abandoned well that was installed when the house was built. Very often, property owners are not even aware that they have abandoned wells on their property. Each year, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) receives reports of people, often children, who fall into old wells. These incidents may result in injury and death.

According to MDEQ, no one knows exactly how many improperly abandoned wells there are in the state. The National Groundwater Association reports that Michigan leads the nation in the number of new wells installed each year, and likely has more abandoned wells than any other state. Improperly abandoned wells pose a serious risk to groundwater. They provide a direct pipeline or connection to the aquifer from which they draw. Contaminants that enter the well pipe bypass the filtering action of the soil and its cleansing bacteria and fungi.

Unused wells deteriorate without maintenance and use, and openings in the well may allow surface runoff to travel directly into the aquifer. The runoff can carry disease-causing organisms, sediment, fertilizer, pesticides, oil and other chemicals. Abandoned wells may allow contaminated or poor-quality water to move between aquifers. Abandoned artesian wells (groundwater in an aquifer that is under pressure by an overlying layer of soil such as clay, which can result in natural groundwater flow at the surface) may also unnecessarily waste water because of their constant flow. These wells pose a needless contamination risk to clean aquifers by bringing water from them to the surface.

All abandoned wells should be properly closed to protect groundwater and community health and safety. In fact, landowners are required under the state well code to plug their abandoned wells. Common materials used to properly close wells include bentonite clay, neat cement or concrete grout. Legally, a well owner can plug the well at a single family residence himself or herself. However, the MDEQ recommends hiring a well drilling contractor to plug wells. Well drillers have the necessary equipment and knowledge to ensure state codes are met.

Any person who plugs a well is required to submit an abandoned well plugging record to the local health department within 60 days of plugging the well. Complete information about plugging abandoned wells is available at the MDEQ web site. Note that some county health departments require that landowners obtain a permit to abandon a well, and must do so before any work to plug a well can occur. For specific information on closing abandoned wells, MDEQ has an informational brochure, “Plugging Abandoned Wells” to guide you through the process.

The Home*A*Syst Guide- Home Assessment Guide, WQ51, has a chapter on Protecting Your Drinking Water Well to help assess potential risks to water wells as well as other environmental risks in and around your home. Printed copies are available at no cost through the Bookstore on the Michigan State University Extension website, or electronically from the MSUE Oakland County web site.