Well Water Contamination: Lawmaker Seeks Solutions to Road Salt Runoff

DEEP has identified more than 180 wells statewide with high levels of sodium chloride attributed to road salt use.

DEEP has identified more than 180 wells statewide with high levels of sodium chloride attributed to road salt use.

Connecticut is suffering from an excess of salt on the roads which is affecting some residents’ water supply. Sodium chloride from the brine used to pre-treat roadways before a snowfall is creeping into wells, making the water undrinkable.

NBC Connecticut first reported on this issue in 2019.

Since then, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) has identified more wells with high levels of sodium chloride attributed to road salt.

Now, some state lawmakers are taking notice.

Rep. Jaime Foster (D-Ellington) introduced NBC Connecticut to Gabbi Mendelsohn, an Ellington resident whose well water tests show elevated sodium and chloride levels.

“The gentleman (from the testing company) called me and said your water’s not drinkable,” Mendelsohn said.

Mendelsohn said the first sign of a problem was the taste. She couldn’t describe it, but said it was enough to make her switch to bottled water.

While the taste alone may not be enough to put some people off, too much sodium can pose a health risk.

“There's really no good amount of excessive salt to be consumed in a country where the leading cause of death is cardiovascular disease,” said Rep. Foster, who is a nutritional scientist.

Sodium and chloride are also corrosive, eating away at pipes and appliances.

Mendelsohn said she has replaced her water heater four times since she moved into her home eight years ago. She said she’s also experienced problems with her dishwasher and washing machine.

“Unfortunately, the water has corroded the pipes to such a degree that I don't know what it looks like in the walls,” she said.

Her yard slopes downhill from the road, and she believes runoff from the brine the Town of Ellington uses in the winter goes right into her well.

DEEP is investigating the source of the contamination in Mendelsohn’s well and two others in the area.

The town told Mendelsohn it may not be at fault because her well is not up to code, but it is providing Mendelsohn with bottled water until DEEP makes its determination.

Of those, DEEP said 26 have been completely resolved, while almost half of the complaints are currently inactive.

A spokesperson said the reasons for inactivity include a decrease in sodium chloride levels in response to corrective measures, homeowners who declined further sampling, or homeowners who ended communication with DEEP. The remainder of the wells are either being monitored with an interim solution in place or there is an active investigation into the source.

Below are the tabulated numbers of complaints per county, but it is important to note that some counties have more recorded impacts either because of sampling during DEEP investigations or because homeowners are spreading the word and DEEP has received more inquiries.

If road salt runoff is determined to be the source of contamination, state statute requires the responsible party to provide a short-term safe supply of safe drinking water and a long-term solution. That means if the well is on a town road like Mendelsohn’s, the town must pick up the tab. The Connecticut Department of Transportation is on the hook for wells along state roads.

NBC Connecticut learned the DOT has replaced 15 wells over the last five years, with seven more scheduled to be replaced by the end of 2021.

"I think that eventually we're going to have to really comprehensively find a solution. I don't think we can re-dig one well at a time,” Rep. Foster said.

For one thing, it’s extremely expensive.

Larry Grela, who owns Grela Well Drilling, Inc. in Terryville, told NBC Connecticut re-drilling a well can cost $4,000 to $5,000. Drilling a brand new well runs upwards of $10,000.

“Salt has definitely increased. There's no question about it, the salt levels have increased over the years,” he said.

Grela said older wells are more susceptible to contamination.

“Today, they're installed by today's codes. And we seal off the tap better than we ever used to. And we try to prevent any surface water from getting in,” he said.

Rep. Jaime Foster said she would like to see more homes connected to public water. She also wants road crews to cut back on the amount of salt they use.

Rep. Foster co-sponsored a bill to develop training standards for municipal and private road salt applicators. It would also have created an electronic database to track well contamination. The bill passed out of the environment committee, but no further action was taken.

Fifty-one municipalities in Connecticut have voluntarily been certified in the Green Snow Pro training developed by researchers at the University of Connecticut and the Department of Transportation, along with other state agencies. It teaches best practices for equipment calibration, salt storage, and the timing and frequency of salt brine application.

NBC Connecticut

Foster said she will continue to pursue the issue.

“I'm hoping to convene on this issue a lot of experts who can weigh in on this topic,” she said. “Any solution that we look at really has to weigh transportation, and the environment and public health.”

DEEP recommends private well owners have their water tested at least once a year for a variety of contaminants including sodium, chloride, arsenic and uranium.
If the sodium and chloride levels are above the Maximum Contaminant Levels, DEEP recommends homeowners reach out to their local health department to discuss the results, which can refer them to DEEP’s Potable Water Program.

The Department of Public Health also has information about sodium chloride contamination on its website.

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