May. 5, 2004. 02:06 PM
Put cap on old wells


Ontario's landscape is like a sieve. The best guess is that there are more than 350,000 unused wells in the province, every one of which can offer a pipeline for pollution straight into drinking-water aquifers.

Queen's Park used to have a program to locate and plug such wells, but not any more. It was a three-year program that ended last September. There are no plans to renew it.

Under the program, the government put up $3 million, half of which was directed to upgrading working wells and half to plugging old wells. The money was used to defray two-thirds of the cost that landowners faced for doing the work. When the program money for upgrading was spent, the entire program was cancelled, even though money remained for plugging.

Now, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture is urging that the program be reinstated, which, of course, it should be. If it isn't, don't expect landowners to voluntarily plug old wells.

I asked Todd Ferguson of Splash Well Drilling in Prescott about costs. He said they range from $2,500 for plugging a "dug well" to $4,000 for a drilled well. A dug well is, as the phrase suggests, a hand-excavated hole, typically about six or seven metres deep and lined with stones. A drilled well will have a tubular metal casing that often extends more than 100 metres.

There aren't many people who will volunteer to spend this kind of money unless they're faced with a crisis, even though they could be held liable by neighbours for contaminating drinking water.

As Ferguson points out, once bacteria or other contaminants get into an aquifer, they travel, sometimes for a kilometre or more, especially in bedrock where there is little sand or gravel to act as a filter. Moreover, if there is an active well in the vicinity, the contaminants will be pulled toward it as water is pumped out.

We live on a farm with a well, and I thought I knew all I needed to know about how it functioned. But I was shocked at how much I didn't know when I attended a workshop organized by the Lanark and Leeds Green Community (LL Green) in partnership with the Ontario Ground Water Association, and funded by the province. Information about wells is available at

It's not just unused wells that are a problem. Susan Brandum, manager of LL Green, says that 88 per cent of working wells are "not within compliance."

However, Ontario has only two well inspectors for the entire province. And they do inspections only when there is a complaint. So a little skepticism is in order when politicians at Queen's Park applaud their determination to protect drinking water.

One of the biggest problems with unused wells is discovering where they are. Only since the early 1950s has Ontario kept consistent records of well locations, although there are haphazard records dating back to the 1930s.

But the records only show approximate locations. So finding the wells is as often as big a job as plugging them.

Nevertheless, Mark Green, senior public health inspector for the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark Health Unit, thinks the place to start dealing with pollution pipelines is with the 20,000 new wells installed each year.

"Let's just get new well inspections going," he says. "Then, maybe we can get incentives (from the province) to deal with old wells."

I disagree. We need both, and we need them right away. The overall cost would be modest and the benefit, ensuring clean water, should be obvious.

Cameron Smith is an author and environmentalist living near Gananoque, Ont.

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