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. 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 pitless 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 landowners are completely unaware of the hazards these pits pose.
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 buildup 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 can be dangerous,” said 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 ventilating the pit and using a probe to test air quality before entering. 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 pitless adapter and backfill the pit.
Government funding is available to assist agricultural producers under the Growing Forward 2 program. Online resources and free workshops offered by the Working Well program provide well owners with the information and tools for properly caring for water wells. For more information, go to workingwell.alberta.ca, call 310-3773 or email [email protected].