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Angie Hong Viewpoint: Historic homes and farms contain secrets--both good and bad

Part of the fun of owning an old home or farm is uncovering the secrets of its former lives. Whether you find old glass bottles buried in the yard or a piece of remnant prairie in the back 40 that has never been plowed, each new discovery adds detail to the story. Unfortunately, however, old homes can also reveal secrets that threaten our health, such as lead paint, asbestos or abandoned wells.

Whether you live in the country or in town, you could have one or more wells on your property that are no longer in use and have never been sealed. If your house was built before city water was available, there was likely a well on your property. The same is true for old farmlands; even if your house is new, there are likely old wells on your property that once served former houses and barns. A well may be "lost" or abandoned when property changes hands, or when agricultural land is converted to industrial or residential properties. Old, unused wells are easily forgotten.

Abandoned wells pose a major threat to the safety of our groundwater drinking resources unless they are permanently sealed. As a well ages, the casing may rust, joints may leak, the pump may become stuck in the well, or the well may fill with debris. Unsealed wells provide a direct route for contaminants to reach groundwater aquifers, polluting nearby wells that are still in use or even municipal water supplies.

To help protect groundwater drinking resources, Washington County has a well-sealing program that can cover 50 to 100 percent of the cost for property owners to seal abandoned wells on their property. Wells are sealed by clearing out debris and filling the well in with grout, a process that must be done by a licensed well contractor. If you live in a drinking water supply management area or an area of known groundwater contamination, the county will cover the full cost of sealing your well. Most of Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park, Grey Cloud Island and Denmark Township fits into one of these two categories. Outside of drinking water management areas and areas of known groundwater contamination, the county will pay half of the cost for sealing a well for families making less than $90,000 per year.

Finding abandoned wells in an old home or farm can take a little detective work. Unused or sealed wells may be listed in the paperwork from when you bought your home, but often the information is lost over the years.

Look for any physical evidence of a well on your property: a well casing, pipe, or water pump; water pipes which may indicate the presence of a well; a small room, often in the basement, that may have housed a well; a small building located away from the house; a windmill or water pump; or a depression in the yard. You can often see the casing of an unused well sticking up out of the ground. Look for a metal pipe 1 to 6 inches in diameter. Wells that were dug rather than drilled may appear as a ring -- made of concrete, tile, bricks, or rocks -- in the ground. The ring could be anywhere from 12 to 36 inches in diameter. Inside your home, a pipe sticking up out of the floor, possibly stuffed with rags, could be an old well casing. Wells were often housed in a basement offset, a small room attached to the basement, often located under exterior concrete steps. A glass block fitted into a step or a concrete patch could be another clue.

To learn more about sealing abandoned wells, visit