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Old Wells and Two Standards

Focus on well abandonment and construction standards.

September 12, 2011  By Treena Hein

The case for more attention on proper well retirement and higher well construction standards is an ongoing industry concern.

The case for more attention on proper well retirement and higher well construction standards is an ongoing industry concern.

“Enforcement of proper well abandonments and higher construction standards for all wells would elevate the calibre of our industry, while also obviously better protecting our ground water,” says Brad Meyers, the Alberta director on the Canadian Ground Water Association (CGWA) board and owner of Aaron Drilling in Dewinton, Alta. “It would be hard to find contractors who would argue with this, but many are nervous about the fact that [retiring wells] means higher costs for customers.”


More public education, grant programs, regulations that better designate liability, and better rules enforcement would all go a long way in furthering the protection of ground water and its industry. Many old water wells, especially in central Canada, were developed using a well pit as opposed to pitless adaptor systems. Over the years, some of these well pits have deteriorated a lot and become a risk factor for aquifer pollution, especially old, abandoned well sites. Most provincial regulations prohibit the construction of new wells in pits, but don’t adequately address the upgrading of wells in existing well pits or removal of the pits. There also seems to be a lack of enforcement in ensuring all old unused water wells are retired correctly.

“There’s so little inspection and enforcement of the rules that as long as no one knows about the well in question, it’s pretty easy for a developer or anyone else to ‘make it disappear’ without anyone knowing it was there in the first place,” says Kevin Constable, CGWA first vice-president and Ontario director. “Many of these wells are old with no records, so they are impossible to trace.” Constable notes that there are still some grants for the retirement of abandoned wells in Ontario (generally administered by conservation authorities), but that they’re running out and being cut back.

Meyers says there’s also a fair amount of apathy among Canadians with regards to looking after abandoned wells and ground water protection.

“All ground water issues need attention, but it’s hard to get the public motivated about something they get with so little effort,” he says. “As industry contractors, we understand the importance of protecting ground water, but it’s convincing the public that seems more difficult – especially when homeowners and business owners are facing rising costs of living and doing business.”

In Alberta (and elsewhere), it’s the landowner’s responsibility to properly decommission any unused, abandoned wells. Alberta’s provincial regulations provide the standard for the appropriate material to use and the procedure, says Jennifer Macpherson, a ground water policy advisor at the Groundwater Policy Branch of Alberta Environment (AENV).

“At the moment, decommission can be done by the landowner, although we are always debating whether to change the regulation so that decommissioning must be done by a certified journeyman water well driller,” she says. “That would certainly raise the cost, but ensure that wells get properly plugged. However, a higher cost might also reduce the number of wells that actually get plugged. So the debate goes on.”
There are a couple of programs in Alberta to assist certain people with retirement of abandoned wells. The Water Management Program operates under the umbrella of the combined federal and provincial Growing Forward funding program and is only available to farmers. The program also provides farmers with technical assistance and funding incentives for the creation of long-term water management plans for the farm. There is also the Special Needs Assistance for Seniors program.

At the same time, Meyers says there are more and more municipalities insisting that wells in their jurisdictions be correctly abandoned and documented before subdivision approvals are granted, which is a positive development, but covers relatively few wells.
Alberta’s past has seen a number of cost-sharing initiatives related to the decommissioning of wells, but Macpherson says they have all been short-term and occurred only because local municipalities approached AENV and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada with various cost-sharing proposals.

“These programs lasted only a few months at a time and landowners usually ended up paying about a third of the total cost to properly plug their wells,” she notes. “The only municipality I know of that currently offers financial assistance for decommission of water wells is Red Deer County. Funding is available to rural acreage owners as well as farmers – anyone who owns a well.”

She also points out AENV has partnered with other government agencies and the Alberta Water Well Drilling Association to create an educational outreach program called Working Well, which provides information to private well owners on properly managing water wells and protecting ground water.

“The program is in its fourth year now and although there’s no funding involved, it’s been very well received,” she says.
Working Well workshops have been provided to over 2,500 Alberta well owners.

However, Meyers says it’s up to local contractors to convince their customers of the importance of retiring abandoned or unsanitary water wells.

“There was some talk some years ago among Alberta Water Well Drilling Association board members of asking for provincial legislation to compel contractors to report water well situations which require remediation,” he says. He thinks that having this in place, as well as educating landowners about how important it is that everyone do their part to protect a critically important resource, is more important than giving out grants. 

Constable says the problems in Ontario are the same as in Alberta – a lack of a framework for responsibility.

“Usually, in a development situation, the township, through the engineers, forces the developers to comply, but some still sneak through the cracks.”

He says that with private wells, “Unless the homeowner cares and can afford it, nothing is done. I would agree with Brad that if the contractors were held responsible, things would change.”

Well standards
Many in the industry and beyond believe it’s high time that construction standards for private and commercial water wells be harmonized. Having all wells completed to the highest standard (commercial) would better protect ground water from possible contamination. In Alberta, every rural landowner has the right to 1,250 m3 of water per year for single-family domestic purposes, which is what a basic domestic well provides.

“Beyond those parameters, you are required to obtain a water diversion licence from AENV,” says Meyers, “and this process requires, among other things, different construction standards.”

The largest difference is that a licensed well allows only single aquifers to be developed and requires grouting from the top of the aquifer to the surface to ensure the well can only produce water from one targeted zone. Wells developed by inter-mixing aquifers in one borehole both inside and outside of the casing could in time cause aquifer quality and/or quantity problems.

“In a domestic well, we are compelled by regulation not to mix aquifers of different chemistries and hydrostatic heads but that is largely left up to the contractor,” says Meyers. “Also, no grouting is required.” Macpherson says although grouting is not mandatory, there still needs to be an annular seal in non-licensed wells.

Macpherson notes that the requirement for the higher construction standard on a licensed well is based on the premise that the impact on an aquifer of a non-household, high-volume well is likely to be higher than that on a small-volume household well.

“The difficulty we are experiencing with this regulation is that in some locations in the province (particularly in the central part), the nature of the geology makes it difficult for the well driller to establish with certainty when the interbedded sandstone and shale sequences they encounter are hydraulically connected – to be considered one aquifer or distinctly different and thus many different aquifers,” she notes. “As well, the problem with having these differing construction standards between household and non-household wells really comes to light when a well owner decides to change the purpose of his or her well to non-household and applies for a diversion permit. They are then faced with bringing the well up to the higher construction standard before being given approval to divert the larger amount of water desired. For all these reasons, we are very seriously assessing the merits of having only one well construction standard in Alberta.”

Meyers believes that most industry and government personnel are in favour of consistent standards, and he would like to see this happen as soon as possible.

“The process seems to fall apart at the point of trying to agree on a field method to confirm different aquifers and establish the maximum gallons-per-minute rate that could be taken from multiple aquifers in order to create a functioning well for a customer,” he says. Meyers believes a consensus is going to be hard to reach. AENV is addressing the issue in their Multi Aquifer Completion study, which involves stakeholders such as government, consultants and contractors.

Meyers says “I think it’s hard to argue that grouting the casing from the top of the aquifer to surface with something positive like bentonite grout, chips or cement wouldn’t be a good thing. It goes a long way to eliminating the possibility of contamination and or mixing aquifers.” He adds, “The problem seems to be determining when it is important to do this and how to properly accomplish it. In any meetings I’ve attended from coast to coast, drillers are concerned when the requirements are too specific. Most think they need some latitude to get the job done regardless of the type of situation or equipment they have. I think as long as you get an engineer’s approval of your plan and execution, that should suffice.”

While there may be many sides to the debate on how best to get old wells properly closed and eliminate double standards for new construction, one thing is agreed upon by all. Ground water protection is critical and we have a public that needs to be better informed and more proactive.

Treena Hein is a science writer based in Ontario.

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