1st step for private water well testing OK’ed

The Lycoming County commissioners unanimously approved a $250,000 grant application that, if approved by the state, will be a locally unprecedented project to support a countywide groundwater quality monitoring project to establish a baseline for groundwater quality data for private water supplies.

The first year would focus on testing 70 private water wells. The county hopes to make it a multi-year project to track water quality and quantity over the years, said Eric Moore, executive director of West Branch Regional Authority and chairman of North Central Source Water Protection Alliance.

Those entities joined forces with Geisinger Health System, Susquehanna Health and the U.S. Geological Survey to design a private water wells sampling program, whose representatives were at Thursday’s meeting.

“This is a remarkable effort that’s unprecedented in terms of what’s being done and the partnership,” Moore said.

Moore said the effort began with the county’s point source committee, which deals with Chesapeake Bay cleanup issues locally. The committee saw wide-ranging needs related to water quality, Moore said, which led to an October 2012 meeting with 25 state and federal representatives to discuss local water quality sampling.

“We discovered we didn’t have a lot of data about private water wells,” Moore said, and there are 14,000 wells in the county.

The effort will fill in the gaps of the knowledge base regarding what’s in the groundwater, he said. It will go beyond the testing parameters of the state Department of Environmental Protection, Moore said.

“There may be reason to look at lower levels (of volatile organic chemicals, for example) to look at long-term health impacts,” he said.

The project doesn’t target the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry, Moore said, although it will test for certain elements known to be used by the industry, but its purpose is to establish a baseline of water quality in general. Optimally, the baseline would’ve been established prior to gas drilling or coal mining, he said, but funding only recently became available through the Marcellus Shale Legacy fund, which draws from Act 13.

Dennis W. Risser, groundwater specialist with USGS, said the key part of the study is that information from data collected will be available to anyone with Internet access as part of their national water information system database, which can be accessed at www.water.usgs.gov. The USGS will manage the program and test samples.

Matthew McLaughlin, director of Occupational Health for Susquehanna Health, said the study will help impact their patients’ health.

“Strong scientific data leads to better health care, rather than anecdotal data, which is all we have right now,” McLaughlin said.

He noted USGS has rigorous testing controls. “Rather than testing a (private water) well on an island, we’ll have science-based data to draw from” to create a strong network of information, he said.

“To date, there’s no baseline data in this county. This will tell what’s really in there,” McLaughlin said.

Stephen W. Sellers, director of research project management for Geisinger Health System, said the data also will empower its researchers to provide further advanced treatment options.