An estimated 3 million people in North Carolina rely on well water for their drinking water. Many of the contaminants in well water — whether naturally occurring arsenic or industrial pesticides — cannot be tasted, smelled or seen; they can only be detected through well water testing.
Students in the Pro Bono Program at the UNC School of Law are working on a multiyear, multipronged effort aimed at providing North Carolinians with the informational tools they need to assess the safety of their well water. The first step in that process was completed in October when the Well Water Pro Bono Project published a brochure with the North Carolina Real Estate Commission to help real estate agents and new home buyers understand the type of pollutants that might contaminate residential wells, the testing process and resources for testing and addressing contamination.
Professor Maria Savasta-Kennedy supervises the pro bono project, along with Cathy Cralle Jones, senior litigator with the Law Offices of F. Bryan Brice Jr. in Raleigh.
“Cathy reached out to us after her clients, first-time homebuyers, purchased their home only to learn that the well water that supplied the property was contaminated with industrial benzene and their water was not drinkable,” Savasta-Kennedy says.
“Because the sale was complete and there was no evidence that anyone had intentionally concealed information, there was very little we could do for them,” Cralle Jones says. “We wanted to find a way to help other homebuyers avoid that problem in the first place.”
Out of that case, the Well Water Pro Bono Project was born. Over three years, the students learned the stark reality of buying a home supplied by well water in North Carolina, as well as the endemic problem with well water across the state.
“North Carolina does not require real estate transactions to include a well water test, unless there is a known contaminant that the seller has a duty to disclose,” says Savasta-Kennedy, who teaches environmental law and environmental justice at the law school, and serves as the director of the Externship Program. “And the federal Safe Drinking Water Act doesn’t cover private well water. There’s no federal law that governs what is in your well water and how safe it is to drink.”
When a new well is constructed in North Carolina, the local health department is required to conduct an initial test for a limited number of contaminants (N.C. Gen. Stat. 87-97), but the law does not require ongoing testing. Nor does it require testing of any wells installed prior to 2008. Moreover, the testing does not include radon (a prevalent, naturally occurring contaminant in the state), and several emerging contaminants such as PFAS and GenX. The law leaves residents with the task of ensuring their wells are free from toxins, but the process of testing wells, or even the need to do so, is not common knowledge.
Hannah Nelson ’20 was one of the first students to work on the project.
“Access to clean drinking water has been a priority issue in North Carolina for years, but a lot of the advocacy thus far has centered on those receiving municipal water, leaving citizens on private wells to fend for themselves,” says Nelson, who now works as an associate attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Thanks to the hard work of many people, I’m excited to see that what started out as a spring break pro bono project has turned into an important resource for North Carolinians, who deserve to feel safe when using the water in their homes.”
In hopes of clarifying how to navigate this process, students published a brochure outlining what contaminants should be tested for and how often, who to contact for testing, and options to pay for testing and filtration systems if contaminants are found — such as applying to The Bernard Allen Drinking Water Fund, which helps low-income households test and remediate well water. Students also released a video for home buyers and residential well users. The students have collaborated with researchers at the UNC Superfund Research Program; Clean Water for North Carolina; the NC Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Public Health, Private Well and Health Program; and the NC Real Estate Commission to create the brochure and the video. Clean Water for North Carolina is translating the brochure into Spanish, which will be added to the NC Real Estate Commission website.
Next steps include a presentation for realtors in the state, a continuing legal education presentation for lawyers, and outreach to home inspectors, home loan officers and county health officials.
Current students Lauren Corey 2L, Caroline Randive 3L, Bill Rubin 3L and Sam White 2L have helped bring the brochure and video project to completion.
“North Carolina’s current requirements for well water testing are not enough to protect the millions of residents who rely on wells for drinking, eating, bathing and making a living,” Corey says. “But I’m optimistic these requirements will strengthen as more attention is brought to the issue. This project has been a terrific opportunity to do something concrete to begin to address the problem.”