Last week, I joined Maryland Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery County) and State Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Carroll and Howard counties) to discuss pollution threats to the state’s drinking water and legislation that, if enacted, would create a private well safety program in Maryland.
The quality of drinking water holds personal significance for both legislators. Stewart grew up in a small Alabama town where a Monsanto chemical factory knowingly dumped toxic polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) chemicals in the local water supply. He has since developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a cancer associated with PCB exposure — twice.
Hester has also confronted this issue. When she moved to Ellicott City a few years ago, she discovered that hazardous levels of radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas associated with lung cancer, were leaching into her home’s well water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate radon, so homeowners like her bear responsibility for testing their water and addressing contamination.
Nitrates in Maryland drinking water
Our January 25 conversation focused on a different contaminant: nitrates. Last year, my colleague Katlyn Schmitt and I assessed the extent of nitrate contamination in drinking water on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore. Our findings were published in a report, Tainted Tap: Nitrate Pollution, Factory Farms, and Drinking Water in Maryland and Beyond.
Nitrates are an odorless, colorless, and tasteless compound that form when excess nitrogen from fertilizer or manure breaks down. Rainwater and irrigation can cause them to percolate through the soil, entering the groundwater that many people rely on for drinking and cooking. Ingesting nitrates in drinking water is most commonly associated with blue baby syndrome, a condition fatal to infants. Recent research has also found a link between nitrates and certain types of cancer (especially colorectal cancer), pregnancy complications, and thyroid disease.
Our analysis focused on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore because more than half of the state’s registered poultry concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are located there and because many of the region’s residents rely on private wells.
In Maryland, county agencies require drinking water wells to be tested once, when they are first drilled. After acquiring a sample of well water testing data from the Lower Shore’s three counties — Somerset, Wicomico, and Worcester — we found that nearly one in 25 wells tested since 1965 in the latter two counties had nitrate levels above EPA’s safe drinking water threshold of 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L). This standard, however, does not apply to private wells, which are not regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which only covers drinking water systems with at least 15 service connections or those that provide service to at least 25 people.
Shortfalls in Maryland drinking water protections
Our report also ranked states by the degree to which they protect private well owners. We found that Maryland is one of five states with the fewest protective policies in place. Unlike other states, Maryland does not offer financial assistance to well owners to test or remediate wells, require properly sellers or landlords to test and report on well water, or require public notification of known well contamination problems.
While the state operates a Be Well Wise outreach program, which encourages well owners to test their water annually, our research suggests the program isn't reaching many residents. In a survey we recently completed with Lower Eastern Shore residents, nearly three-quarters of well owners said they had either tested their well more than a year ago or had never done so. The most common explanation respondents gave: “I didn’t know I needed to.”
This is especially concerning in the case of nitrates. Several state agencies across the country have stated that nitrate levels of 3 mg/L — less than one-third of the federal safety standard — indicate contamination by “human-made” sources and that concentrations can increase over time. Nitrates can only be removed from drinking water with expensive treatment technologies, such as reverse osmosis.
With inconsistent testing and few resources for well owners, we are left wondering: How safe is our drinking water? While more research is needed to answer this question, public health data does not paint an encouraging picture.
Cancer and infant mortality rates in Lower Eastern Shore counties are among the highest in Maryland. Furthermore, a study published in December found that cancer patients on the Lower Shore are more likely to rely on private wells. Colon cancer rates, in particular, are higher among well water users.
Our findings prompted Del. Stewart to introduce a bill this session (HB 1069) that would create a well safety program in Maryland and bring the state in line with other agricultural states. In short, the legislation would:
- Create a well testing and remediation program that would provide residents with financial assistance to cover costs associated with water test kits and, when unsafe levels of contamination are found, of well remediation.
- Encourage transparency by creating an accessible online database of well water quality test results and require the state to engage in basic data- and information-gathering related to unprotected groundwater drinking sources.
- Ensure well water protections for tenants and new home buyers by establishing testing and notification requirements for property owners.
- Establish a source tracking and notification program requiring the state to test groundwater in areas of known or suspected contamination and notify residents when contamination hotspots are found.
The program would be funded by a tiny (0.02 percent) fee on real estate transactions and serve as a type of “insurance” for private well owners. A bill hearing is scheduled for February 24 at 1:30 p.m. Eastern in the House Environment and Transportation Committee.
Maryland’s “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” approach to private wells is likely harming people’s health. It is long past time for the state to implement common-sense reforms that would provide residents with resources and information to safeguard their health.
To learn more, watch a recording of my discussion with Stewart and Hester here or in the video below.