Some say that this burgeoning market isn't being tapped to its full potential.

Jim McEwan discusses Michigan's abandoned well program.
Note: This article consists of excerpts from the educational seminar "MDEQ Well Abandonment Program - Review & Update," presented by Michigan Department of Environmental Quality program director Jim McEwan to the Michigan Ground Water Association Drillers Celebration 2001, Mar. 28-29 in Lansing, Mich.

Abandoned wells are a problem because they provide a direct conduit between the surface and the drinking water aquifers through which contaminants can move. Basically what we have out there are a bunch of old steel well casings that have met their life expectancies. This presents some problems. Not only can you have contamination from the surface getting into the top of the casing, but also all up and down that casing you can have corrosion and areas that have rotted out, and contaminants can get in through there. Abandoned wells facilitate the migration of contaminants.

What we've been doing with our abandoned well management program for the last two-and-one-half years is educating the industry and the public. Drilling contractors need to do their part and explain to well owners the importance of plugging old wells.

Water line extension situations go a long way in emphasizing the importance of a proper abandoned well management program. As an example, there are four current municipal water line extension projects in one area of Michigan that will result in the abandonment of somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 wells. We're working closely with our district office there, the water utilities, the local health department, drillers in that area and the communities to make sure those wells are either put back into service or plugged. We've provided training manuals that lay out the specifics of how to deal with abandoned wells at various well sites.

These water line extensions - where customers previously were served by on-site wells and now are served by municipal water - create a couple of issues. First you have the cross-connection issue and then you must deal with the abandoned wells. Options for the well owner:

1. Plug the well. If it's taken out of service and no longer needed, the well must be plugged.

2. If the well is to be retained for use, the owner needs to use a cross-connection control device. Installed on the municipal water line entering the building, the device serves to prevent any cross-connection potential from the on-site well.

3. Completely separate the two systems. This probably is the more commonly taken option. The drilling contractor restores the well to operating condition so that it can continue to be used, but it is kept completely separate from the building's plumbing.

Diagram of an effective well plugging method using neat cement grout.

What can drilling contractors do?

Firstly, learn to work with the water utility managers. In addition to being in the interest of the public's health due to cross-connection concerns, there also are economic reasons for having a solid working relationship with the utility managers - you'll be able to gain a lot of business opportunities plugging wells.

Also, you should be bidding on these contracts. Right now, there's a problem of not enough drillers getting out there to plug the abandoned wells. As a result, plumbing contractors, demolition contractors - any number of other contractors - are stepping in to fill that void and taking away that work which, under the law, should go to drilling contractors. But if you don't bid on them, who do you have to blame? And if plugging old wells is a service your company provides, mention it in advertising and promotional materials.

Another business opportunity drillers need to take advantage of is restoring wells to operation. Say, for example, a home was built a few years before the new water line went through. That's a perfectly good well there; maybe the property owner wants to use it for irrigation. The owner will hire someone to come in and get that well restored to operational condition - a good opportunity for well drilling contractors.

One of the challenges involved with abandoned well management is finding the wells in the first place. If you're out there trying to find a buried well head, it can be difficult to do at times. You don't want to be digging up half of the property. The more research you can do - with property owners and other drillers in the area - the better your chances are of locating the well sooner rather than later. When it gets real serious, there are ways of finding wells. Magnetometers do well at finding just about any steel well casing. It's not inexpensive, but it can be accomplished. Don't be afraid to use the geophysical technology that's out there.

A more common occurrence when you're contracted to plug an abandoned well and you're at the job site: you get out there and find there's two, maybe three, of them. The way it's turning out at most of these types of sites is that for every generation that the property has been occupied, there's another well. n

For more information on this well abandonment program, go to www.deq.state.your state's postal