Mysterious Well Pit

from the Dec 19, 2016 Issue fo Agri-News

It was a warm summer day in 1999 when a teenaged girl went down into her family’s central Alberta root cellar to gather some vegetables for dinner and collapsed. When her father attempted to rescue her, he also passed out. The teenaged son who attempted to retrieve both his sister and father was also overcome. Of the three family members who entered the cellar, only the father survived. At first, investigators suspected that the vegetables had rotted and emitted a toxic gas, but the real problem proved to be something else. Investigation into the incident revealed that the root cellar was actually a well pit and the two teenagers died of asphyxiation, caused by a depletion of oxygen in the air within the pit due to the release of gases from the well.

This unfortunate situation is, thankfully, not a common one. But it serves as a very important lesson for owners of well pits. Before the advent of pit-less adapters, it was common practice to put wells inside pits to protect them from freezing in cold weather. Since 1993, it has been illegal to enclose a well in a pit in Alberta, but there are still hundreds of old well pits throughout the province. Some land owners are completely unaware of the hazards these pits pose.

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Why are well pits a problem? Well pits are a safety hazard for anyone who enters to service or repair the well. Some wells breathe, meaning they take in air under certain conditions and release gases under other conditions. In Alberta, well pits have exploded due to the build-up of methane gas and people have died from asphyxiation after entering oxygen depleted well pits.

Well pits also increase the risk of contamination to the water source (groundwater) because they provide a place for water and contaminants to collect. They are particularly dangerous when flooding occurs, because contaminated water can collect inside the pit and make its way inside the well. These pits also appeal to animals and small insects searching for water, warmth and food. From the well pit, these animals and their waste can find their way directly into the water you drink. If water is in the bottom of the well pit, it can also pose a risk as an electrical conductor.
Well pits pose many hazards and landowners are encouraged to upgrade or replace existing well pits to help protect themselves and valuable groundwater resources. “Well pits can be dangerous,” says Ken Williamson, a water expert and presenter with the provincial Working Well program. “They should be upgraded and replaced if possible.”

In the interim, Williamson advises that you should ventilate the pit and use a probe to test air quality before you enter it. Never store anything inside the pit and keep it as clean as possible so as not to attract mice and insects. A sanitary well seal will protect the well and prevent contaminants from getting from the pit into the well. Landowners should hire a licensed water well contractor to properly upgrade the well with a pit-less adapter and backfill the pit.
Government funding is available to assist agricultural producers under the Growing Forward 2 program. For more information, visit 
www.growingforward.alberta.ca

Online resources and free community-based workshops offered by the Working Well program provide well owners with the information and tools they need to properly care for their water wells. For more information, visit the Working Well website at 
www.workingwell.alberta.ca, call toll free Alberta 310-3773 or e-mail ESRD.Info-Centre@gov.ab.ca.

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