Robeson County residents test for bacteria in well water

Researchers collect water samples from private wells in Robeson County, NC.
Researchers collect water samples from private wells in Robeson County, NC.
Published: Jan. 8, 2019 at 5:17 AM EST
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ROBESON COUNTY, NC (WMBF) - More than 70 residents in Robeson County have tested their drinking water for contaminants following flooding caused by Hurricane Florence.

Researchers with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Virginia Tech distributed free test kits on Monday as part of a larger study.

“Well owners are solely responsible for their water quality so when flooding happens or even under normal conditions, they are the stewards of their water, so they have to make sure it’s safe,” said Kelsey Pieper, a researcher with Virginia Tech.

Pieper said the group has previously tested homes in Robeson and New Hanover County. She said those counties were chosen because impacts from Hurricane Florence involving coal ash.

The testing is just the beginning in finding a solution that impacts much of the state.

“One out of three North Carolinians drink their water from private wells and about a third of those have some kind of contaminate in their water,” said Andrew George, a community engagement coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “So, this is not just a minimal issue. This is kind of something North Carolinians need to worry about.”

Flood waters can carry bacteria, chemicals and other organic compounds from the ground into people’s drinking water.

“It can be anything from a tummy ache to serious health consequences, so it depends on what’s in the water and how it got there,” George explained.

Pieper said they hope by understanding what happens to well water after flooding events will help researchers prepare and assist residents in the future.

Part of the problem, researchers said, is that many individuals don’t understand the potential risk.

“Without testing it you can’t really do anything to know what your situation is,” said Cory Wait, a PhD student at Virginia Tech. “You may think it is fine but if you test then you can know for sure.”

George said wells should be tested every year for bacteria and every two years for metals.

Wait explained anything from the structure of the well to geology to construction can cause well water to be contaminated.

Pieper said another problem with private wells is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not regulate private wells, so they are usually only tested if residents choose to.

“If there’s not an immediate thing that happens like flooding and you’re not getting sick from your water, it might be something that is overlooked because there are other priorities in life,” she said.

While Monday’s kits were free, testing wells can cost owners anywhere from $100 to $300. If the well needs to be fixed, the costs can be higher than some residents in a rural community can afford.

“In some parts of the country and in some parts of the state, we don’t have access to affordable testing, so people don’t even have the option to be proactive,” Pieper explained. “I think there are a lot of different variables that go into it so that’s why we are trying to overcome them and look for what people are doing it and why they are doing it.”

The researchers distributed the kits and held an informational meeting on Monday to start spreading awareness of the issue.

During the meeting, test results from previous testing in Robeson County were presented.

Many homes tested outside the recommend pH level. Almost 30 percent of the wells tested had coliform bacteria, but none had E. coli.

Researchers said the pH levels could be caused by shallow wells, but they don’t have enough evidence to draw conclusions on why the contaminants are found.

The group hopes to test again in the Spring and potentially have a draft of some findings prepared by the fall.

“The good news is we have these resources to address the wells and we’ll take the next steps to address them,” George said.

If you live in Robeson County and are interested in testing your well, you can email for more information.

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