October 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW5

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Abandoned Well Plugging Demonstrates Environmental Concern

Protection of groundwater used by private water users was the focus of an educational program entitled "Safe Water for Kansas." The central theme of the program was to encourage people to properly plug abandoned water wells. Each event resulted in at least one plugged abandoned well. Other topics included water testing, new well site selection, and well construction. Over 175 demonstrations were conducted with around 6,000 individuals in attendance.

Danny H. Rogers
Extension Agricultural Engineer

G. Morgan Powell
Extension Agricultural Engineer

Kansas State University
Manhattan, Kansas
Internet address: amb@ksuvm.ksu.edu

Standing out-of-doors exposed to the elements and watching fill material being poured into a hole does not sound like an event likely to draw a crowd. Yet in the past two years nearly 6,000 Kansans have attended an abandoned well plugging demonstration. Estimates of the number of abandoned water wells in Kansas range from 250,000 to 500,000. These wells are a conduit for direct contamination of groundwater. Many are also a safety hazard to people, animals, and equipment. Therefore, abandoned wells are a liability to the landowner. Kansas law requires that abandoned wells be plugged. However, enforcement has been limited and in many areas nonexistent.

Environmental quality awareness has been increasing and is having greater influence in the decision-making processes. One piece of evidence of increasing environmental concern was the allocation of state and federal money to county health departments and soil conservation districts to establish Local Environmental Planning Groups (LEPG) and to develop sanitary codes to develop non-point pollution protection plans. When asked to identify environmental problems and corrective actions, many county planning groups identified abandoned wells as a problem and plugging as a control action.

Many Kansans, particularly rural residents, depend on private groundwater wells for their domestic water supply. Recent surveys and studies indicate that water from about half of private wells would not meet public water supply standards. Because of the importance of groundwater to rural Kansas residents and the recognized hazard, the Kansas Cooperative Extension Service in cooperation with the Kansas Farm Bureau developed an educational program on plugging abandoned wells.

The program, officially titled "Safe Water for Kansas" featured information on water testing, well construction, well site selection, and disposal of abandoned wells. The plugging of the abandoned well, however, was the high-interest feature of the program. Participants learned about the hazards and liabilities associated with abandoned wells and the correct procedures for plugging abandoned wells.

Events were generally co-sponsored by county personnel from the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas State Cooperative Extension Service, although other local sponsors such as conservation districts, the county health office, LEPG, groundwater management districts, civic and service clubs, FFA chapters, and agribusinesses participated. Local planners selected the site and handled the labor, equipment, and materials arrangements with guidance from university Extension specialists. Refreshments and meals were often incorporated into the event. Initially sites were visited by the Extension specialist and the state representative from the Farm Bureau during the selection and planning process. As experience was gained, questions about well conditions could be answered and prior visitation became unnecessary.

The equipment and fill material expenses were generally borne by the landowner. Expenses for local fill materials were generally minimal. However, the more expensive sodium bentonite clay, an approved grout material, was donated by industry through contacts made by the Farm Bureau. Approximately 250,000 pounds of bentonite was used during the demonstrations.

Over 175 well plugging demonstrations were conducted with almost 100% participation by the 105 Kansas counties. Nearly 200 wells were plugged. Many were attended by FFA, civic groups, and farmer organization representatives for education on proper procedures. These groups then planned multiple well pluggings as a service project for their neighbors and community. The program focused initially on farms, but expanded to include rural residents and small communities. The impact of the demonstration was also magnified with coverage by the local newspapers, radio stations, and to a lesser extent, by television.

Well plugging demonstrations are still being conducted, however, without direct specialist involvement. County Extension agents and other agency personnel have continued to schedule events and promote plugging at farm shows, county fairs and other events. State support continues through the supply of the bulletins and the production of a video entitled "Plugging Abandoned Wells." Training workshops have been held during the annual Extension conference.

The program's success was probably due to the combination of a number of factors including: (a) the increasing concern and awareness of the public regarding the environment, (b) the establishment of local environmental planning groups in Kansas that corresponded with the initiation of the program, (c) the multiple organization sponsorship of the events, and (d) the hands-on or active nature of the event. In almost every instance, some degree of participation by those in attendance occurred. Every event accomplished a positive action--the proper plugging of at least one abandoned well--forever removing this groundwater contamination conduit and safety hazard. The paperwork documenting the proper plugging was completed for filing with the state as also required by law.