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Contamination found in Sugar Valley wells

Groundwater study done last summer

SARAH PAEZ/THE EXPRESS USGS hydrologist John Clune presents the results of a groundwater quality study conducted on Clinton County wells last summer.

MILL HALL — A U.S. Geological Survey study of groundwater quality from 54 privately-owned Clinton County wells last summer has revealed almost a third of the wells, mostly in Sugar Valley, contained elevated levels of E. coli bacteria.

Sixty-three percent of wells had some amount of coliform bacteria, but only 22 percent contained high amounts of it. Almost 3 percent of wells contained high amounts of nitrates, and a smaller percentage had high amounts of arsenic.

But, according to USGS hydrologist John Clune, the study’s lead researcher, the majority of the wells had normal results, or results that did not exceed the maximum contaminant levels for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standards.

In January, USGS sent the results to the well owners who participated in the study so they can treat their water if necessary. Since the study sampled untreated water close to the well head, Clune said, it was possible some well owners were already treating to rid their water of contaminants.

The results of the study were publicly unveiled Wednesday night in a presentation at the Clinton County Conservation District. About 20 members of the community attended.

Scott Koser, watershed specialist and education coordinator for the Conservation District, gave a short presentation on the county’s watersheds and the office’s efforts to conserve them.

Clune said Clinton County’s groundwater quality results match up to those from similar studies in Wayne, Pike, Lycoming and Bradford counties.

In those counties, there were several wells with elevated levels of arsenic and about 20 percent sampled had elevated levels of fecal coliform and E. coli.

According to Clune, higher limestone areas, like the southern parts of the county, including Sugar Valley, Bald Eagle, Porter and Lamar townships, are more likely to have higher concentrations of bacteria coliform and nitrate in the water.

Limestone areas tend to have close interactions between surface water and groundwater, and surface water moves more easily downward and horizontally through the rock. Thus, if the surface water has any contamination from agricultural, chemical or natural sources, the groundwater may be more susceptible to contamination.

In fact, according to Penn State Extension water resources coordinator Bryan Swistock, in some parts of Pennsylvania, researchers have found nearly two-thirds of wells contain some form of coliform bacteria.

Clune said his team also sampled for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), found commonly in paints, chemical products and industrial work. Of more than 3,000 results, only two contained detections of VOCs in Clinton County.

Swistock addressed water treatment for well owners.

“It’s my job to tell you how to solve all these problems,” he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Fifty-three percent of Pennsylvania private water systems have some treatment. The most common types are sediment filters and water softeners. However, only 20 percent of wells in the state have sanitary construction.

For the most sanitary well construction, Swistock recommended keeping a sanitary well cap, located 12 inches above ground on sloping ground with well casing extending to the bedrock and a grout seal, which can prevent bacteria from getting into the well casing.

Water can become contaminated with coliform bacteria, fecal bacteria or E. coli bacteria due to runoff, septic systems, animals, or poor well or spring constructions. The best way to treat water contaminated with this bacteria is shock chlorination, ultraviolet light or an ozonation system. Swistock cautioned that well owners must find the source of contamination before treating the water, otherwise the problem will persist.

Clune said that last summer’s study does not provide information to definitively identify where the well water contamination in parts of Clinton County was coming from

But this year, USGS is launching a follow-up study of Fishing Creek and its tributaries using synoptic sampling to identify potential sources of contamination.

Using a new instrument that measures nitrate instantaneously, researchers can track where the nitrogen is coming from in order to identify potential sources, such as chemicals, natural, agricultural or septic, for the county Conservation District to target.

Clune praised Clinton County for adding to helpful, informative groundwater quality research around the state. The county, he said, “generally has good quality groundwaters.”

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